If you’ve lived here long enough, you know there is always a good number of high-profile corruption cases in the works. Just this month, two massive scandals have rocked the political world and left both main political parties aspiring to take the Casa Rosada on December 11 — the Victory Front (FpV) and Republican Proposal (PRO) — with more than a few metaphorical bruises: Tucumán, which ended with a court annulling the elections, and the one involving the City Government and a well-known journalist, which brings us here today.
Fernando Niembro, a Fox Sports broadcaster running on a Republican Proposal (PRO) ticket for a seat in Congress, is being charged with money laundering and has dropped his congressional bid after an investigation revealed a company he previously owned had awarded irregular contracts with the City Government.
So, what happened?
On September 1, newspaper Tiempo Argentino published an investigative piece stating that Niembro’s company, La Usina Producciones, had received over ARS $23 million from several City Government contracts between 2012 and 2015 without going through the traditional bidding method. (In a nutshell, contract work must be awarded by the government to the most convenient bidder promising low project expenditures and high returns, according to City Law No. 2095. The only way the City Government can skip this bidding step is if “urgent reasons” oblige it to directly contract a company, as stipulated by Decree 556/2010.)
Although La Usina Producciones’s official description alleges it works to “take part in the journalistic and/or advertising business on its own or via a third party,” the investigation found that it had provided services that didn’t quite match this particular description. The company billed the government for such activities as handing out flyers and conducting polls and even submitted a form to the tax collection agency (AFIP) stating it had worked in the “astrology and séance” business.
Essentially, none of these activities appeared to qualify as “urgent reasons” to contract the company.
When consulted about the investigation, Niembro denied any irregularities.
“We buy air space on radio and TV networks and sell them to interested organizations and companies,” he said.
However, he later tried to put some distance between himself and the business, which he ultimately left in 2014.
“I have nothing to do with it now. It follows its own path, led by a former business partner of mine,” he said.
“I’m fine, I’m calm. We know we did things right. We bid just like many other companies. [The investigation] is looking for a problem that doesn’t exist,” he claimed.
Sidenote: these few words succeeded in unleashing hell on social media because they echo his most famous catch phrases: “The players on the bench are calm. Just like us, because we have travel ace assistance [the product he advertised].”
As the news made the rounds, more information about La Usina came to light. Newspaper Diario Popular published information about the company’s status with the AFIP tax collection agency, revealing that the company was not registered as a formal employer and had no registered employees. And even more incriminating: the City was its only client.
The Kirchnerites Get Involved
The Attorney General’s Economic Crime and Money Laundering Unit (PROCELAC) started a preliminary investigation and Kirchnerite lawmaker Gabriela Alegre pressed criminal charges against the company.
On September 10, the City Congress approved a request to have the City Government explain the contracts.
Alegre said she would compel prominent PRO leaders Mauricio Macri, María Eugenia Vidal and Buenos Aires mayor-elect Horacio Rodríguez Larreta to explain the situation before before the City Legislature.
The lawmaker accused them of “hiding information and not publishing it in the Official Gazette,” in reference to the contracts with the City.
On September 11 the PROCELAC, led by prosecutor Carlos Gonella, formally pressed charges against Niembro as well as his former partner Alberto Meza, Rodríguez Larreta and three other high-ranking officials for “defrauding the administration, violating their duties as public officers and abusing their authority.” The investigation would also determine if Niembro and his partner had participated in a money laundering scheme. The case fell to Federal Judge Sebastián Casanello’s courthouse.
Which brings us to today, when federal prosecutor Ramiro González indicted both Niembro and his former business partner.
The PRO Fires Back
Of course, the PRO party counterattacked and criticized prosecutor Gonella for going after their people.
“[Gonella] works at President Cristina Kirchner’s bidding. He hasn’t investigated big money launderers and has buried important cases in the past. Now, he’s gone from being a tortoise to a hare, because he doesn’t work for the Judiciary, he works for the government,” stated Deputy Patricia Bullrich. Mauricio Macri also chimed in to defend the journalist.
“It’s all transparent. They conducted polls and bought air time on the Fox Sports Channel for the City to use,” he said about the company’s activities. “This is what Kirchnerites do: they sully and smear reputations.”
Macri publicly defended Niembro in a rally in Rosario: “I highlight his gesture. He took a step down to not harm the party. We presented before justice and collaborate, unlike those who accuse him, who block investigations, remove judges and do anything they can not to lose power.”
Despite the PRO’s support, the situation took a toll on Niembro.
On Tuesday, he requested a leave of absence from his work as a journalist until the legal situation cleared and on Wednesday and dropped his congressional bid. He communicated his decision in a public letter in which he claimed the case against him was being used “to harm his party.”
“I’m the victim of an unfair attack,” he wrote.
Less than two months before the elections, the scandal raises the question: Is this the start of a campaign against the PRO party, which could have its leaders Mauricio Macri and María Eugenia Vidal as the ultimate targets? Only time will tell.