Only in Argentina, they say. Former president-cum-Senator Cristina Fernández de Kirchner appeared in court on Monday to face up to graft allegations and an imminent fourth charge of “illicit organisation”. Many observers believe she will run for the presidency in 2019.
The senator’s testimony before the courts were part of a fast-moving pre-trial investigation into the explosive information about her government’s alleged mishandling of public works funding, which was revealed two weeks ago in a series of photocopied notebooks belonging to a former chauffeur at the Planning Ministry, Oscar Centeno.
The notebooks revealed names, amounts and delivery times of alleged bribes paid by construction sector bosses to former Kirchner officials. The hot spot within government appears to have been the Planning Ministry of disgraced former minister Julio de Vido, who is currently in jail on a preventative arrest order stemming from a separate corruption case.
Prosecutor Carlos Stornelli this week said the money involved in the so-called “notebook” case could total US$160 million. The scandal has rattled Argentina’s construction industry, over a decade after rumours of widespread bribery in the sector first surfaced.
One by one, for a total of 11, the kingpins of construction have secured plea bargains with Federal Judge Claudio Bonadio and Prosecutor Carlos Stornelli. Their testimonies have been explosive, but Fernández de Kirchner has shown her willingness to put up a fight.
“Today, Bonadio has again summoned me, accusing me of being the boss of another illicit organisation. This time with key construction-sector businessmen. This is my fourth illicit organisation. At least I’m the boss”, the former head of state said, ironically, after her appearance at the Comodoro Py courthouse on Monday, where she presented a written statement denying the allegations made against her, her husband and former high-ranking, high-profile officials in their governments.
Fernández de Kirchner described the situation she faces as “a political decision of the Judiciary, at its highest levels, in coordination with the Executive and the mainstream media”.
“This is a new regional strategy to proscribe the political leaders, movements and forces that gave rights and permitted millions of people in the last decade and last half of the 20th century to exit poverty”, she added.
Her former vice-president Amado Boudou took a similar line last week before he was sentenced to nearly six years in jail for bribery and conducting business incompatible with public office, in a separate case related to the fraudulent acquisition in 2012 of Ciccone Calcográfica, the only facility in Argentina with the capacity to print legal tender.
A BIG WEEK
Among some of the most striking allegations were those suggesting construction sector bosses paid kickbacks to former government officials in exchange for benefits, which included a presidential decree and back-channel indemnity negotiations with the Hugo Chávez government.
On Thursday, Gabriel Romero, director of the Emepa Group, told judge Bonadio in testimony that he bribed Néstor Kirchner government officials to secure a presidential decree in January, 2010 for the renegotiation of a construction contract tied to the Hidrovía project his firm was operating. Romero’s statements as part of his plea bargain favoured Emepa executive Rodolfo Poblete, excusing him of any responsibility in the bribery. Poblete was released from preventative detention on Thursday.
Fernández de Kirchner took to Twitter on Friday to discredit the men behind the testimonies.
“On pyjamas, bedrooms and decrees in the ‘repentant’ Argentina of Macri”, she wrote, describing the plea bargains as “extortive” and saying she was “surprised” to learn of Romero’s accusations.
Seeking to distance herself, she also downplayed the salacious testimony of former official in the Néstor Kirchner administration, Claudio Uberti, who had testified to having seen her in pyjamas. Uberti “ne
ver formed part of my presidencies”, CFK charged.
Another former official, the disgraced ex Planning Ministry secretary José López testified before Bonadio on Friday before press time. He secured a plea bargain and witness protection.
TECHINT IN VENEZUELA
Another testimony late last week revealed that an executive at the Italo-Argentine engineering firm Techint made payments to former Kirchner government officials to shore up a near US$ 2 billion indemnity payment from the Venezuelan government over its expropriation of Techint’s Sidor firm in 2008.
Luis Betnaza, the firm’s corporate director who admitted to making the payment, was indicted but has secured a plea bargain. In his testimony before Bonadio last Friday, he downplayed the amount of money allegedly paid, saying it totalled approximately US$ 1 million.
“We never put any money into public works”, Betnaza told reporters outside Comodoro Py courthouse on Friday, referring to the apparent modus operandi of the scheme.
Asked by a Noticias reporter if the payments could total as much as US$ 300 million (as that publication reported last Saturday), Betnaza replied: “I cannot talk about bribes, there is a court order in place. I told the judiciary everything I know”.
Despite his indictment, the current vice-president of the Argentine Industrial Union’s name does not appear in the series of photocopied notebooks. Sources closes to judge Bonadio suggest that Betnaza referred to three men in his testimony as having participated in the alleged payoff: former president Néstor Kirchner; former Planning minister Julio de Vido; and Héctor Zabaleta, a Techint executive.
Techint downplayed the situation in a statement. “Betnaza testified that in order to safeguard the physical integrity and repatriation of more than 200 employees of the Techint Group and their families in Venezuela, who were living in a threatening environment during the hostile process of nationalisation and transfer of the Chávez regime”.
On Thursday, the company’s CEO Paolo Rocca, speaking at the AEA private sector summit, denied being “part of the club of corruption” despite recognising the bribes tied to negotiations with Caracas.
NOT A GOOD LOOK
In broader terms, the evidence revealed in Centeno’s notebooks and the subsequent testimonies of business leaders have compromised a number of former Kirchnerite officials and political figures.
On Friday, the financier with historic ties to the Kirchner couple Ernesto Clarens was the latest man to move one step closer to a plea bargain, securing Stornelli’s approval. His testimony could be particularly damaging for Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
Martín Larraburu, the former assistant to her Cabinet Chief during part of her second term, Juan Manuel Abal Medina, also testified on Friday shortly before being released from jail. Larraburu has not sought a plea bargain, insisting he only “handed over” the money when he received it and alleging that José Ottavis and Andrés “Cuervo” Larroque of the Kirchnerite youth movement La Cámpora were among the recipients of bribes.
From her Senate office, where she enjoys parliamentary immunity, Fernández de Kirchner and her colleagues have called for a full audit of public works projects during hers and her late husband’s time in office. The Lower House denied a previous similar request in 2016.