A man is sitting in a cell of the Soto del Real prison on the outskirts of Madrid, plotting the downfall of the People’s Party (PP) government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. He is blind with rage and determined to use everything he knows to annihilate Rajoy and his cabinet.
The man is not a left-wing activist. He is a former senator and national treasurer of the party whose leaders he now loathes. His name is Luis Barcenas, known in PP inner circles as “Luis the Arsehole”. He has accumulated up to €48 million in Swiss, Uruguayan and other bank accounts.
There is no doubt Barcenas is an arsehole. On June 27, as he was being taken from the National Court to prison, he pointed to the lawyer representing a civil interest in his case and said: “Socialist, you’re going to come across me!”
But Barcenas is an arsehole who has badly fallen out with the upper echelons of the PP and the Rajoy government. Since investigating magistrate Pablo Ruz decided there was a danger that he would abscond with valuable evidence unless jailed, the PP’s former national treasurer has been leaking material that, if confirmed, must bring down the government.
His most recent bombshell was providing the editor of the daily El Mundo with an original page from the national PP’s “B” accounts book. This shows illegal “brown envelope” monthly payments of between 5000 and 15,000 euros to senior ministers, including Rajoy, during the 1996-2004 government of Jose Maria Aznar.
Photocopies of these “B” accounts ― which Barcenas says records the PP’s real financial operations as opposed to the doctored version rubber-stamped by the auditors ― have already been published. But the PP claimed they were a forgery.
Barcenas told El Mundo that the PP had been financed illegally for 20 years, and that what he had leaked was only a tiny part of the material in his possession.
Abandoned by the PP mates who once supplied him with a 350-euro-an-hour lawyer for his defence, Barcenas’s fury is limitless. After his revelations, his lawyers said they could no longer defend him.
Now the government is panicking. On July 11, the PP used its absolute majority in the national parliament to defeat an opposition motion demanding that Rajoy appear and give his version of events. In the meantime, Rajoy continues stonewalling whenever the press can locate him: “This is a matter for the courts on which I have no more to say.”
How did things get to this critical point? The Barcenas case is the culmination of an ongoing exposure of the corrupt ties between Spain’s main conservative party and the country’s “capitalism of mates”.
This is a cesspool in which business, mainly in the building industry, has made illegal donations to the PP in exchange for juicy government contracts and insider help in flaunting building and environmental regulations.
One speciality, particularly refined in the PP-run regions of Madrid, Galicia and Valencia, has been for PP insiders to set up companies that would “bid” for government contracts in areas like sport, entertainment and culture.
They would then be “awarded” them by sympathetic or corruptible officials on terms that guaranteed enormous profits. Part of the earnings would then be channelled into PP coffers and the rest into personal accounts in exotic tax havens.
The job of taking the lid off this sewer began in February 2009, when National Court magistrate Balthasar Garzon ordered an investigation into an alleged conspiracy of corruption operating in Madrid, Valencia and the Costa del Sol.
Evidence of corrupt networks involving PP notables had first surfaced in late 2007. In documents provided to the courts, the initials “L.B.” appeared alongside well-known PP names including Aznar’s son-in-law.
As a result of Garzon’s investigations, 37 PP heavies, including mayors, regional party leaders and the Valencian premier Francisco Camps, were charged with offences including bribery, influence-peddling, tax evasion and money laundering. Three of those charged were sentenced to preventive imprisonment, including Francisco Correa, the brains of the operation.
Rajoy claimed that Correa “had not given a single euro to the PP”. The PP took care to suspend the party membership of all those charged by Garzon.
Throughout 2009 the stream of effluent bubbling up into public view kept swelling. Some of the choicest revelations were:
· The gift by Correa of a Jaguar luxury car to the former husband of PP deputy (now Rajoy minister) Ana Mato;
· The declaration by Camps’ tailor that Correa’s number two had paid in cash for 30,000 euros worth of suits for the Valencian premier;
· A formal charge by Garzon that Barcenas had received 1,353,000 euros from Correa;
· The publication of a number of police and Anticorruption Prosecution reports showing millions of euros of corrupt network services done for the PP and never declared.
As a result of the rising heat, Barcenas stood down “temporarily” as PP national treasurer. However, he stayed on as a PP senator and kept an office in the PP’s national headquarters until late 2011.
Party spokespeople declared their confidence in his innocence and determination to stand by him.
Garzon nailed―too late
The reaction of the outraged PP machine to the snowballing scandal was to set in motion a strategy to “get” Garzon by deploying the power and influence of pro-PP appointees in the Spanish judicial system.
Garzon’s rulings were appealed to a higher court whenever the PP judged there was the slimmest chance of their being overturned. PP spokespeople relentlessly questioned his impartiality, and the right-wing media went after the magistrate full blast.
Partly in response to these attacks, but also because regional sections of the High Court had jurisdiction over aspects of the case, Garzon referred parts of the case to the High Court branches in Madrid and Valencia. As investigating magistrates in these jurisdictions uncovered more of the conspiracy, they imposed bail of between 650,000 euros and 1.8 million euros on suspects.
The main PP counter-attack came in April 2010, when the High Court ruled that it would hear a case against Garzon for ordering phone taps on conversations between suspects and their lawyers. In November that year, Garzon was found guilty of ordering illegal phone taps and suspended from practising as a magistrate for 10 years.
At this point the PP strategy seemed to be bringing the scandal under control. This impression deepened when, in September 2011, Garzon´s case against Borcenas was shelved and, in May last year, when a jury found Camps, who had resigned as premier of Valencia, innocent of corruption.
Start of end?
However, three factors have acted to block the cover-up. The first is the incessant drip of scandal ― the disclosure of Swiss bank accounts (including Barcenas’s 48 million euro nest-egg), of relations between convicted crooks and still-serving politicians, and of payments to PP-related entities by bitter businesspeople bankrupted by the collapse of the Spanish housing bubble.
The second has been the surge in popular anger against the corruption of the rich and their political mates when most in Spain are doing it hard in the midst of economic crisis.
The third has been the determination of campaigners for justice to make sure all possible pressure is brought to bear on the legal system ― still largely dominated by PP appointees and sympathisers. This pressure grew after the suspension of Garzon and, ironically, has copied a tactic used by the PP and other right-wing forces.
This tactic is to declare an association of interest in a case, try to convince the magistrate (or superior bodies) of a right to legal representation in it, and, if successful, have lawyers intervening in court in defence of that interest. In this way, pressure is placed on the prosecution and presiding magistrate, especially where they might be suspected of being soft on important people.
In the case of the PP, this tactic has been used to defend its own. For the Barcenas and related cases, the United Left, the Free Association of Lawyers, Ecologists in Action, The Greens and civil liberties group Justice and Freedom created a platform that brought a lawsuit for unlawful association against certain PP figures and sought right of appearance in any cases involving them.
Even though magistrate Ruz ruled that this platform had no right of representation in the Barcenas case, he did allow the presence of a lawyer representing the Association of European Democratic Lawyers.
It was this lawyer ― and not the prosecution ― who demanded the magistrate jail Barcenas, a suggestion followed by Ruz (and provoking Barcenas’s outburst).
PP national secretary Dolores de Cospedal and Barcenas are set to appear before Ruz while the parliamentary opposition continues to demand an appearance from Rajoy. Oppositionists within the PP, led by former Madrid regional premier Esperanza Aguirre, are asking pointedly for the prime minster “to end the ambiguity”.
For those old enough to remember, it all feels very like the last days of Watergate.