Corruption scandal in Argentina fells titans of business

Argentine vice president Amado Boudou (R), seen here standing next to then president Cristina Kirchner on March 1, 2014, is serving a prison sentence for corruption

Buenos Aires (AFP) - Records kept in notebooks of the kinds used by schoolchildren are bringing down titans of Argentina's industry in a multimillion-dollar corruption scandal.

Dirty dealings are nothing new in Argentina.

What sets this case apart is the large number of people going down -- around 20 so far, with additional names surfacing regularly -- and their high-flying status in the business world.

The scandal involves under-the-table payments to the governments of Nestor and Cristina Kirchner, the Peronist couple who ruled before the current president, Mauricio Macri.

One big mystery is whether the money went to enrich government officials personally or was helped finance election campaigns.

Investigative Magistrate Claudio Bonadio is raising eyebrows by aggressively ordering the arrest and questioning of so many business leaders, from both ends of the political spectrum in Argentina. Most of the arrests happened on August 1.

"It is not the first time that major businessmen have gone to jail. What is new is the number and the reason," said Sergio Morresi, a political scientist at San Martin National University.

Tycoons under arrest

Prosecutor Carlos Stornelli has said bribes paid in the so called "corruption copybooks" case total $160 million.

Bonadio began jailing tycoons after the publication of the records by Oscar Centeno, who worked as a driver for the deputy planning and public works minister Roberto Baratta.

In these notebooks, Centeno meticulously recorded the alleged receipt of sacks of money from 2005 to 2015.

The whistleblower had been expelled from the army for bad behavior.

"There is no doubt that the copybooks describe in detail the way in which the Kirchners raised money illegally for seven years without any alarm going off at any oversight agency," said Nicolas Solari of the consultancy Poliarquia.

So far, eight business leaders have confessed and struck plea-bargain deals.

Angelo Calcaterra, a cousin of Macri, acknowledged having ordered the payment of cash requested as a bribe in order to receive government contracts.

Testifying before the judge, he said he thought this was a mandatory election campaign contribution.

Leaders of big multinational companies such as Argentina's Techint and Isolux of Spain have paid a visit to Bonadio's office.

"The indictment and arrest of business leaders is new, and considering the unpopularity and impunity that big business people enjoy, it will probably be well received by public opinion," said sociologist Ricardo Rouvier.

  

Privileged

Morresi, the political scientist, said "one possible result is real progress in transparency and criminal convictions."

The Buenos Aires stock market has taken a hit with the arrests.

Alberto Fernandez, who served as chief of staff to the late Nestor Kirchner, has complained that only business leaders who supported the Kirchners and their leftist Peronist governments have ended up behind bars -- not those close to the current, conservative Macri government.

A dozen or so people from the planning and public works ministry have gone before the judge -- though they have not yet been charged over the case -- and Cristina Kirchner's turn comes Monday. She now holds a seat as a senator.

Ex-planning minister Julio de Vido and his deputy Jose Lopez have been in prison for corruption since 2017 and 2016, respectively. 

They managed the federal government's public works projects under the Kirchners and were the only two ministers to survive the various cabinet reshuffles across the couple's 12 years in power.

Lope was caught red-handed hiding 160 suitcases and duffel bags containing $9 million in a convent with the help of a nun.

©Agence France-Presse