The sprawling corruption case nicknamed “the notebooks scandal” sparked something of a rift in our newsroom this week. While the print edition of Perfil decided not to publish a series of spreadsheets with specific information regarding corruption in public works projects by the financier of the Kirchner Family, Ernesto Clarens, Perfil.com — our digital arm — went ahead and posted a series of articles detailing the content of said documents, publishing the originals. While the information is not conclusive at this stage, as it requires serious decoding (as does Clarens’ testimony), Perfil. com managed to confirm the documents were indeed the ones the prosecution is analyzing, and through which they reached a plea bargain with Kirchner’s moneyman.
We concluded that it was valuable for our readers to have access to the full documentation that journalists mentioned partially in TV shows and written columns throughout the week, and that our job was to give the news and, of course, to help our readers understand it from the most objective stance possible. We did this by understanding the risks of alienating important advertisers and the ethical question of publishing information that hasn’t been fully crosschecked by Federal Prosecutor Carlos Stornelli and Judge Claudio Bonadio.
The documents consist of two spreadsheets: the first was a list of 86 construction companies along with specific amounts of public works projects supposedly budgeted or executed totalling more than 33 trillion pesos through April 2010; the second included a breakdown of works in the roads and transportation sector from October, 2003, through January, 2015, including the official budget cost and what appears to be the real cost, with a colour code that came from Clarens — this was confirmed informally by sources at the Comodoro Py federal courthouse. The second file appears to document official data from the Dirección Nacional de Vialidad, the official entity in charge of roads and highways. While the prosecution hasn’t officially confirmed the documents’ veracity, off-the-record confirmations have been granted to Perfil, along with Clarín and La Nación which published parts of them throughout the week, as well as TV show Animales Sueltos. In his testimony, Clarens reportedly indicated that the first spreadsheet listed the companies that had colluded to secure public works projects through a kickback scheme known as the “public works club,” while the second shows amounts the state was over-charged for those works. It’s important to note that case focuses on the whole system, which includes both the public and the private sector.
During his second testimony, Clarens noted that, between 2003 and 2011, a minimum of 660 million pesos in bribes and kickbacks flowed through this specific network, with the “rate” fluctuating between four percent and 50 percent of the officially budgeted value, with the total number potentially rising to billions of pesos. That money, which Clarens converted into dollars and euros, ended up on flights to Santa Cruz province where they were allegedly stashed in the private safes of the Kirchner family. That information, along with the spreadsheets, allowed him to reach a plea-bargain deal with Prosecutor Stornelli after a botched attempt that was blocked by Judge Bonadio, who wanted to see documentation that backed up his words. La Nación’s star investigative journalist, Hugo Alconada Mon, has warned readers that Clarens is withholding information, only releasing what is beneficial for him to maintain leverage and negotiating power. Sources in the Judiciary, speaking on condition of anonymity, indicated they needed to check Clarens’ spreadsheets with previously collected evidence, suggesting some of the information could be adulterated or even being used for extortion. Also speaking on deep background, sources in the private sector say the maths doesn’t add up and that there are multiple apocryphal lists being circulated. At the same time, the prosecution did have access to the information and a judge has approved the plea bargain, suggesting they consider the information should prove helpful in building their case which centres around an illicit association led by former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her late husband Néstor to defraud the state, along with the help of government officials and businessmen.
Not only is the case fascinating – as the Buenos Aires Times’ readers who’ve been following our coverage can attest to – but it is also imperative that the Judiciary move forward impartially, targeting everyone involved, from politicians to businessmen. While it is difficult to expect impartiality from Judge Bonadio (who has made it clear that he has a personal vendetta toward Fernández de Kirchner) and Prosecutor Stornelli (who was former Buenos Aires Governor Daniel Scioli’s Security Minister) Argentina’s media must keep a close tab on this case, which has the potential of setting an important precedent in the seemingly eternal battle against public-private corruption in this country. At the same time, while the information hasn’t been fully decoded by the prosecution – or the media for that matter, –the contents of the “Clarens lists” had already been published and aired. But only partially. By confirming the documents indeed form part of the investigation and then explaining the danger of taking them at face value, Perfil.com sought to give the full story, making sure to place it contextually, avoiding taking sides. Their publication doesn’t automatically mean that Clarens’ testimony is true, rather that the prosecutor and judge are investigating this lead and considered it valuable enough to reach a plea bargain with the defendant.
This is an interesting time to ponder the ethical dilemma facing newsrooms, both present and past. Washington Post veteran Bob Woodward of Watergate fame recently gave the New York Times’ morning podcast an interview where he defended “deep background reporting”. Rejecting the term “anonymous source reporting,” Woodward explained he spent hundreds of hours gathering documents and interviewing sources. He knew his sources’ identity and their value, and had the documentation to back up his pieces, not only during Watergate, but today, as he releases a book on the Donald Trump administration titled Fear: Trump in the White House. The use of unidentified sources “is reserved for situations in which the newspaper could not otherwise print information it considers newsworthy and reliable,” reads the New York Times’ integrity guide, which would justify their recent printing of an anonymous op-ed by a “Senior Administration Official” criticising President Trump a few weeks ago, which generated an aggressive Twitter-reply from The Donald and sparked a debate about whether it should have been printed at all.
We faced a similar issue here, but after debating it internally at all levels and making sure our information checked out to be correct, we also decided to move forward and publish the documents. Our belief is in watchdog journalism, hoping that we can do our part to make sure the truth sees the light of day.