The FBI is investigating U.S. Treasurer Catalina Vasquez Villalpando, one of the Bush Administration's highest-ranking Latinos, for allegedly violating federal statutes by accepting travel, lodging and possibly other benefits from a private company, sources close to the inquiry said Thursday.
FBI agents searched four buildings in the Washington area and one in suburban Atlanta on Wednesday, reportedly seizing bank records, computer files and boxes full of papers.
The Atlanta location was the office of Communications International Inc., of which Villalpando was a senior vice president and partner. The company also has offices in Washington and Los Angeles.
Villalpando, 52, could not be reached for comment Thursday night. She was appointed treasurer by Bush in 1989 after serving eight years in a variety of posts in the Ronald Reagan Administration. She is past chairman of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly and, as treasurer, oversees operations of the U.S. mint.
Although the investigation focuses on favors that she allegedly accepted from Communications International, the search warrants listed a wide range of serious crimes, according to sources familiar with the inquiry. They include bribery, conspiracy to defraud the government, making false or fraudulent claims, racketeering, making false statements to federal agents and fraud by wire, radio or television.
The search warrants were issued on the basis of affidavits that detailed the alleged criminal conduct, but which were sealed by federal courts. Villalpando is the central figure in the investigation, although other individuals are also believed to be involved, sources close to the matter said.
Asked about the investigation late Thursday, a Justice Department spokesman said: "We just can't comment at all."
Villalpando, whose signature appears on dollar bills, was at the center of controversy in the presidential campaign in August because she characterized Democratic nominee Bill Clinton and former San Antonio Mayor Henry G. Cisneros, who is campaigning for Clinton, as "two skirt-chasers."
She and President Bush quickly apologized for the remark. But a top Clinton aide, campaign communications director George Stephanopoulos, called for Bush to dismiss her.
Communications International, whose current relationship with Villalpando could not be immediately determined, reportedly provided the telephone hookup that permitted U.S. forces involved in the 1991 Persian Gulf War to talk with relatives in the United States.
An Atlanta television station, ABC-affiliate WSB-TV, reported Thursday that agents searched the Communications International office there until midnight Wednesday before leaving with a rental truck filled with items that had been seized.
Joseph Profit, founder of the company, told the station that federal authorities advised him he was not a subject of the investigation. "They told me we were witnesses" and would be asked to provide information.
Profit, a former player for the Atlanta Falcons in the National Football League, also said that he found the timing of the raid suspicious because it came a week before the elections. However, political motivation seems unlikely since the investigation is being carried out under a Republican Administration.
Ostrow reported from Washington and Harrison from Atlanta.