Puerto Rico leader: FBI probe political

( AP ) - A federal corruption probe can be career-ending for U.S. politicians - but in Puerto Rico it could help Gov. Anibal Acevedo Vila hold onto power by stirring a nationalist backlash.

As a U.S. grand jury investigates alleged campaign finance violations, the governor insisted Friday in an interview with The Associated Press that he is a victim of persecution. His complaints against the federal government taps into deep-rooted nationalism on the Caribbean island, whose residents are U.S. citizens but generally, consider themselves Puerto Ricans first.

"It is clear to the Puerto Rican people, number one, that this is a politically motivated investigation," Acevedo said at his office inside a Spanish colonial mansion. "It is also clear to the Puerto Rican people that nobody and nothing is going to keep me from the task of governing Puerto Rico."

Pro-independence activists have deplored the grand jury probe, even though the small minority favoring independence for this island of 4 million are not natural allies of Acevedo's Popular Democratic Party, which prefers to retain Puerto Rico's semiautonomous status.

Resentment of the investigation could end up boosting Acevedo just when he needs it most: opinion polls suggest he could lose a November re-election bid because of discontent over crime and unemployment.

Acevedo dismisses the probe as Washington's retribution for his criticism of a September 2005 FBI raid in which a fugitive militant independence leader was killed when agents came to arrest him at a remote hillside farmhouse on the island.

Acevedo also says Rosa Emilia Rodriguez, the top federal prosecutor on the island, is aligned with one of his main opponents in this year's race for governor, a candidate from the party that favors making Puerto Rico the 51st U.S. state.

Justice Department and FBI officials decline to respond to Acevedo's criticism, saying they cannot discuss an open investigation.

A Harvard-educated attorney and career politician, Acevedo, 45, served in Washington as the island's nonvoting delegate to Congress, and was elected governor in 2004 after campaigning on an anti-corruption platform.

But Acevedo hasn't been immune to scandal - state authorities launched an ethics probe after his party bought him tailored suits worth $40,000 for his official use.

And while Acevedo initially said he had better relations with Washington than any previous governor, he has openly criticized U.S. authority since the Justice Department probe began, for example by challenging federal death penalty cases in Puerto Rico, where local laws ban capital punishment.

The Justice Department has not released details of the investigation. But people questioned by the grand jury have said they were asked about the finances of Acevedo's 2004 race for governor and his successful 2000 bid for resident commissioner. Dozens of people have been questioned, including many of his closest aides.

The indictment threat doesn't seem to have cost Acevedo popularity among his party's faithful - many say he should remain in office even if he is indicted.

"When public figures in Puerto Rico place themselves in the position of a victim, the reaction of people is 'Ay, bendito,' 'Poor him,'" said psychoanalyst and commentator Alfredo Carrasquillo.

Still, Acevedo's bid for re-election in November appears to be a long shot amid overall dissatisfaction over his performance as governor.

Trailing two potential rivals from the pro-statehood party in polls, Acevedo has seen his approval ratings drop below 30 percent amid high crime, unemployment and a sales tax approved last year after a budget stalemate that led to a partial government shutdown in 2006. Increases in water rates and highway tolls haven't helped him either.

Maximo Cerame Vivas, a columnist for the San Juan Star newspaper, told the AP that Acevedo's strategy of wrapping himself in the Puerto Rican flag might help him in the polls if he is indicted.

"I think the governor is going to benefit from all this," Cerame said.

The governor said he will seek re-election regardless of the outcome.

"It has not affected me nor will it affect me in my work for the people as governor, and when the campaign comes I will take charge of the campaign," he said.

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