Cristina Fernández de Kirchner should stand trial for corruption, a federal appeals court confirmed on Thursday, as the former president’s legal woes deepened.
The court upheld a September request from federal judge Claudio Bonadio ruling that Fernández de Kirchner, now a sitting senator for Buenos Aires Province, should go to trial on charges related to the ‘notebooks’ corruption scandal which broke earlier this year.
The judges also confirmed Bonadio’s request that she be jailed under pre-trial detention.
Capping off a difficult week for the former head of state, prosecutors Gerardo Pollicita and Gerardo Mahiques yesterday asked Federal Judge Julián Ercolini to send the Citizens’ United leader, her two children, Máximo and Florencia Kirchner, and 18 other defendants to trial on money-laundering charges related to the socalled ‘Hotesur’ case.
Nonetheless, and even if she is found guilty, Fernández de Kirchner is unlikely to find herself behind bars anytime soon. Her immunity as a sitting lawmaker, coupled with the support of Peronist lawmakers, protects her from imprisonment, though not from prosecution.
In August, the Senate – including Fernández de Kirchner – voted to partially lift her immunity so that investigators could search her three luxury homes – but unless it is entirely lifted, she cannot be jailed even if found guilty.
Speaking yesterday, Senate leader and Peronist lawmaker Miguel Pichetto told a local radio station that “pre-trial detention is a mechanism of anticipated punishment.”
“We will look at the impeachment [request] if there is a firm sentence,” he added.
Fernández de Kirchner, who served two terms as president from 2007 to 2015, stands accused of running a criminal network involving bribery, kickbacks and the illegal financing of electoral campaigns.
The charges relate to the now infamous ‘notebooks’ corruption scandal first uncovered by journalists at the La Nación daily, based on the discovery of meticulous records, kept by a ministerial chauffeur, detailing millions of dollars in alleged bribes paid by businessmen to government officials.
In their ruling, the judges described the former president was “boss” of “illicit association.”
Soon after learning the decision, the former president lashed out at government and the Judiciary on Twitter, claiming the charges came “at the request of [President Mauricio] Macri, Cambiemos and Clarín,” the national daily she has often been at odds with.
“I say: where will the verdicts be written? All at the request of and custom-made by Macri,” she posted on the social network, also pointing a finger at the ruling coalition.
The Buenos Aires Federal Court of Appeals also embargoed 1.5 billion pesos (US$38 million) worth of her assets and ordered former planning minister Julio de Vido to also face prosecution for his role in the alleged illicit association.
Several others, including former junior ministers and highprofile businessmen, were ordered to be released from detention but will still be prosecuted for bribery.
Both Fernández de Kirchner, 65, and her late husband and predecessor as president, Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007), are suspected of having received millions of dollars in bribes from businessmen in exchange for large-scale public works contracts, with witnesses having testified bags of money were dropped off at their private residences and the Olivos presidential residence.
The payments were allegedly documented by ministerial chauffeur Oscar Centeno in notebooks seized by investigators. The original notebooks, however, were reportedly burned by the driver, with only photocopies remaining.
Speaking yesterday, the former president’s lawyer, Carlos Beraldi, said the accusations “are false and none of the crimes which they are accusing her of took place, nor was she the head of an illicit association or did she receive money from businessmen.”
“They can say that she was a good or bad president, but they can not invent a legal case,” said Beraldi.
In total, more than a dozen former government officials and 30 top businessman have been implicated in the case.
Prosecutor Carlos Stornelli has claimed as much as US$160 million in bribes was handed over between 2005 and 2015, though others have suggested the real figure could be much higher.
The scandal has engulfed practically the entire construction industry in Argentina, including the vast majority of companies involved in public works projects over the last few decades. It has even involved close members of President Macri’s family.
Last week, his father Franco and brother Gianfranco were called to testify before Bonadio last week to answer questions relating to the Autopistas del Sol company, a subsidiary of the Macri Group, in connection with alleged bribes paid to secure highway contracts.
Franco Macri, however, is considered too frail to attend court and his health will be checked on by a court-appointed medical doctor.
The president’s cousin and businessman, Ángelo Calcaterra has also been caught up in the probe. He is the former owner of the Iecsa construction company, having acquired the firm from the Macri family group in 2007, in a transaction that many industry observers felt was just a formality.
Iecsa was very active during the Kirchnerite years, and Calcaterra was a common figure at former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s press conferences. He voluntarily showed up in Bonadio’s office when the “notebooks” scandal erupted, admitting his company had paid bribes under his orders andsaying the Kirchners had asked him to contribute to electoral campaigns.
The president, who held important roles in the family business started by his father before beginning a political career, has not commented on the case, while the government has said it respects the Judiciary’s independence.
Away from the corruption scandal, the president has his hands full managing an economic crisis that has seen the peso lose 50 percent of its value against the dollar this year, while Argentina entered officially recession earlier this week, after the INDEC national statistics bureau confirmed the economy shrank by 3.5 percent in the third quarter of the year, the second running quarterly contraction.
Macri has secured a US$56- billion bailout loan from the International Monetary Fund to try to drag Argentina out of its problems, while implementing tough, and unpopular, austerity measures.
On Friday, two prosecutors called for the former president and her children, as well as 18 other defedants, to face trial on alleged money-laundering charges. The so-called ‘Hotesur’ case is probing the alleged moneylaundering of 80 million pesos through a hotel group related to Kirchnerite business ally Lázaro Báez, who is currently in custody and faces trial in another case known as the “K money route.”
The case is now in the hands of Federal Judge Julián Ercolini, who will have to decide whether to send it to trial.