“From 2003 to August 2007 it worked like that. First I would take the US$150,000 to [ex-Planning] Minister [Julio] De Vido’s office, later I would take it straight to the President’s office, I would hand over the briefcase directly to Néstor Kirchner.”
With those words, Claudio Uberti — a former head of an Argentine tollbooth regulator — managed to convince federal judge Claudio Bonadio to grant him a plea bargain. And, in turn, Uberti put President Mauricio Macri and his family in a tough spot.
This week, Bonadio summoned Gianfranco and Franco Macri, the president’s brother and father respectively, to testify under the framework of the so-called “notebooks” corruption case.
Gianfranco made his way to Comodoro Py federal courthouse on Thursday, where he denied all the allegations against him. Franco’s lawyers submitted documentation to the judge indicating their client’s frail health and age (88 years) made it impossible for him to be there in person.
The development puts the president in an awkward situation, with members of his government having repeatedly sought to paint the probe along party lines, emphasising that the cuadernos probe is an investigation into corrupt practices run by the previous Kirchnerite administrations.
Yet while these aren’t the first accusations against the presidential family in this case, they probably won’t be the last.
Judge Bonadio, who has previously faced allegations from the opposition that he is directing the probe toward opposition figures, is investigating alleged bribes by the so-called “tollbooth club” during the Kirchnerite administrations.
It is one of the probe’s many lines of investigation which also includes the socalled “construction club,” the energy related companies, and every sector that came under the jurisdiction of De Vido, who is currently behind bars at Marcos Paz federal prison.
The allegations concerning the Macri family members relate to their construction company, Socma, which secured contracts to complete two stretches of a state highway.
According to the director of the OCOVI tollbooth regulator, operators who won the concessions for six major “transportation corridors” – including the western and northern corridors, in which the Macri family participated as shareholders – paid regular bribes to officials.
The northern corridor, which connects Buenos Aires City with the Panamericana highway through Acceso Norte, was controlled by Autopistas del Sol SA, a firm in which the Socma holding group had a substantial 23.3-percent stake, according to defence lawyers for Gianfranco Macri. This was reduced to 10 percent after 2001 and then lowered further to seven percent at a later date, before being placed in a blind trust. The group is also suspected of corrupt practices involving the western corridor, which was operated by the firm Oeste SA. According to the defence, Sideco — a subsidiary of Socma — “is not and has never been a shareholder in Grupo Concesionario del Oeste SA.”
“Never in my life have I paid bribes,” Gianfranco told the press as he exited Comodoro Py courthouse on Thursday, having arrived from Ezeiza airport hours earlier after travelling overseas.
“And your father?” the journalists present asked. “I don’t know, ask him,” came the curt response. “But do you think your father never paid a bribe?” Macri was asked again. “I don’t know, go ask him,” Gianfranco repeated, as he got into a car and was driven off.
Franco Macri, a business titan who set up his first company in Argentina in 1950, is known to be in a weak state, with some describing him as only partially conscious. The 88-year-old had heart problems and underwent surgery to fix a broken hip back in February. Since then he hasn’t left his home in the swanky Barrio Parque neighbourhood of Buenos Aires.
According to a report in Noticias this week, sources close to the president have briefed that Franco is “senile” and “only lucid a few times a day.” This week, Jorge Macri — the president’s cousin and the mayor of the Vicente López municipality — gave an interview to A24 news channel in which he noted his uncle would add very little if forced to testify: “Today, when speaking with Franco, you may get lucky to have him with you for a while, but after a while he’s gone, he gets lost, and it’s very painful.”
Franco was absent with cause on Thursday, yet Bonadio is still expected to send the court’s medical examiner to confirm he is unfit to testify. The President was “surprised” at the judge's summons for his father, Jorge Macri noted.
Members of the Macri family weren’t the only group of businessmen called before Bonadio this week. Gerardo Ferreyra, owner of Electroingenieria, who is already behind bars, has been summoned, as has been Corporación América chief Eduardo Eurnekian, Marcelino Aznar of Decaival SA, and several other executives.
Those close to the president have briefed that they are aware of the risks of being tied to the “notebooks” case, particularly with an election campaign just around the corner.
The first familial link was Ángelo Calcaterra, former owner of Iecsa and a cousing to the president. Calcaterra acquired the construction company from the Macri group in 2007, in a transaction that many felt was just a formality.
Iecsa was very active during the Kirchnrite years, and Calcaterra was a common figure at former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s press conferences. He voluntarily showed up to Bonadio’s office when the “notebooks” scandal errupted, admitting his company had paid bribes under his orders, saying the Kirchners had asked him to contribute to electoral campaigns.
Calcaterra sold Iecsa to Marcelo Mindlin, owner of energy firm Pampa Energía, in March 2017. The construction firm is also under investigation in the Brazilian Car Wash (“Lava Jato”) probe, as it was one of the partners of Odebrecht in the Sarmiento rail underpass project.