At the start of June, the Spanish parliament voted to oust Prime Minister Rajoy after his political party, the Popular Party (PP), was embroiled in the biggest corruption scandal in Spain’s democratic history.
Known as ‘Gürtel’ (meaning ‘belt’ in English), after the German translation of the surname of the main suspect, a businessman called Francisco Correa, the case refers to a network of corrupt actors that operated across six regions in Spain between 1999 and 2005.
Correa cultivated relationships with PP officials and masterminded financial and in-kind kick-backs for government contracts in public works and event organisation.
Investigations began after a whistleblower came forward in 2007 to denounce alleged corruption in the Boadilla Del Monte municipality in Madrid.
In July of last year, Rajoy testified in court over the Gürtel case, becoming the first ever-Spanish prime minister to give evidence in a criminal case. Suspicions over the authenticity of his testimony were a vital factor in the vote that later removed him from power. The Spanish High Court, the Audiencia Nacional, has sentenced Correa to 51 years in jail for leading the network.
Although Gürtel is by far the most high-profile corruption scandal in Spain in years, it is far from the only case pointing to an unhealthy culture of corruption in the country. It is also part of a larger network of connected corruption scandals, including the case of Luis Bárcenas, a former PP treasurer who was linked to secret cash contributions and donations made by businesspersons, and alleged bonus payments to top party officials. The Audiencia Nacional found Bárcenas guilty of evading more than €11.5 million in taxes, and of taking €1.24 million in bribes from figures who were introduced to him by Correa. Bárcenas will have to serve 33 years in prison and pay a fine of more than €44 million.
As you’d expect, Spain’s new government led by the Socialist Workers’ party (PSOE) has pledged to tackle corruption, and all the main political parties have outlined anti-corruption policies. However, it is important to note that PSOE has its own corruption scandals currently before the courts. All the main political parties have been involved in alleged wrongdoing.
There may be signs of a new climate of accountability, however. This week the brand new PSOE Minister of Culture resigned the very same day as media reports revealed that that he had withheld taxes. Politicians linked to previous scandals have been far more stubborn. Also this week, the Supreme Court upheld a prison sentence for the brother-in-law of the King, over his role in another case, Nóos, named after a non-profit institution that received government contracts without a proper procurement process. He has been convicted of tax fraud, embezzlement and influence peddling.
At this critical juncture in Spain’s struggle with political corruption, Transparency International urges all parties to join forces against impunity and support anti-corruption efforts in public life. There are a number of actions that Spain’s authorities should take in order to tackle the pervasive culture of kick-backs and bribes.
As the Gürtel case shows, whistleblowers are vital for helping bring corruption schemes to light. But potential retaliation from employers or even the courts can create a deterrent to people speaking up. Gaps in Spain’s whistleblower protection law should be closed, and the draft EU directive on Whistleblower Protection should be transposed into national law in Spain in keeping with principles and best practice defined by Transparency International.
As in many other European countries, there needs to be more civic engagement and openness to citizen monitoring in Spain’s public procurement system. This would not only limit opportunities for corruption but help reduce inefficiency and waste.
Codes of Conduct
A recent report by GRECO, the Council of Europe’s anti-corruption body, called for codes of conduct to be established for members of parliament, judges and prosecutors in Spain. There should also be more transparency about how politicians engage with lobbyists, and the independence of both the judiciary and the office of the Prosecutor General need to be protected.
Civil society participation
Other Civil Society Organisations in Spain have called for a dedicated watchdog institution to monitor public procurement, a nation-wide regulation on lobbying, and reform of the Transparency Law so that it recognises access to information as a fundamental right. Spain’s leaders should engage with civil society to find the best way forward to close the loopholes that have allowed Gürtel, and corruption schemes like it, to keep a strangelhold over Spain’s political system.
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