Slowly and steadily, the investigations into the regional Odebrecht corruption case are beginning to pick up some steam in Argentina.
On Friday, Federal Judge Marcelo Martínez de Giorgi granted Prosecutor Franco Picardi’s request and called on 49 individuals to give testimony, including ex-Planning Minister Julio De Vido — currently behind bars for another corruption case — and Ángelo Calcaterra, the former head of the IECSA construction firm and President Mauricio Macri’s cousin.
The case, one of the three in Argentina connected to the regional Odebrecht corruption scandal, centres on the Sarmiento rail underpass project and alleged bribes, kickbacks and spurious expendtirues thought to have ended up in individuals’ pockets.
Along with De Vido and Calcaterra, Judge de Giorgi has also called former Transport secretary Ricardo Jaime (another exofficial currently in prison for corruption), ex-Public Works secretary José López (a man infamous for being discovered dropping off duffle bags full of dollars and a semi-automatic weapon at a convent, also behind bars), executives from Odebrecht and the three firms working on the project — Iecsa, Comsa, and Ghella — and executives from consulting firm CAESA, as well as lobbyist Jorge “Corcho” Rodríguez.
Testimonies are expected to delivered on June 6, with De Vido likely first, ending on October 17 with Rodríguez.
The prosecution’s hypothesis is that the bidding process for the Sarmiento rail underpass project, which involved the tunnelling of the site, was “pointed in the direction” of the consortium made up of Odebrecht, Iecsa — which was owned by Calcaterra at the time — and Comsa, as well as the Italian firm Ghella. At the same time, the investigators are looking into modifications made to the original contract which could have been used to hide bribes and kickbacks. Furthermore, email exchanges between Odebrecht executives and a consulting firm thought to be a placeholder for Secretary Jaime, imply that Iecsa general manager effectively held meetings on the issue of paying bribes.
The Sarmiento rail underpass project has been held up by investigators as a prime an example of how public works projects in Argentina during the Kirchnerite years operated as a giant slush fund. The project’s original budget of US$889 million ballooned to US$3 billion, while the project has barely gotten off the ground, having only reached three of the 18 kilometres it spans in the 13 years since it was originally announced. The government now expects the project to be completed by 2023.
The investigation has uncovered at least 21 irregularities in the bidding process and believes the the bribes and kickbacks were paid through CAESA, a firm owned by Manuel Vázquez, seen as a front man for Jaime. At the same time, via a network of offshore firms, bribes to public servants were paid under the direction of Odebrechet’s infamous “Structured Operations Division,” the company’s de facto bribe-paying division. The bribes were then channelled through Klienfeld Service Ltd, which operated through bank accounts in Antigua and Barbuda. Klienfeld Service had also been used by Odebrecht to pay bribes in Uruguay, Ecuador, Peru, and Panama, according to Brazilian prosecutors involved in the Lava Jato (“Car Wash”) investigation.
Odebrecht executives have confessed that they had paid at least US$35 million in bribes to Argentine officials between 2007 and 2014. The bribes pertained to at least three public works projects, and netted the Brazilian construction firm “benefits” of US$278 million. The three projects have been identified as the Sarmiento rail underpass, a Tigre water purification plant, and an Escobar aqueduct.
Still, Argentine courts have been incredibly slow to move forward with the case. Compared to corruption cases focused on members of the Kirchner administration, the Lava Jato investigation has yet to pick up real speed in Argentina, leading to suspicions that the courts aren’t ready to take on the country’s business elite. – TIMES