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‘Notebooks of Corruption’: Are Business Leaders Who Took Plea Bargains Trying to Deceive the Courts?

They're claiming to be victims of blackmail rather than active parties.

By | [email protected] | August 7, 2018 12:27pm

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The decision of three business leaders to take a plea bargain, after being charged as a result of the events uncovered in the now-infamous notebooks written by Oscar Centeno, seemed to be a breaking point in the fight against corruption in Argentina.

In exchange for a reduction in their sentence, these businessmen admitted to having paid bribes to public officials during the Kirchner administration, giving Federal Judge Claudio Bonadio and Prosecutor Carlos Stornelli the possibility to move forward with their investigation at a much quicker pace.

They are Ángelo Calcaterra – President Mauricio Macri’s cousin; Javier Sánchez Caballero of Iecsa construction company, which actually belonged to the President’s family until 2007, when Macri was elected Buenos Aires City Mayor for the first time; and Juan Carlos De Goycoechea, working for Spanish company Isolux.

However, the confessions have a particular characteristic: they did not admit to having been active parties in the scheme, but blackmailed by public officials and forced to contribute to Kirchnerite electoral campaigns.

This is a key difference, and has already prompted many pundits to consider the possibility that this case, which has the potential to actually take down main characters of the Argentine economic and political landscape, ends up being tainted with accusations of bias and lets guilty people walk.

The distinction lies on the seriousness of the crimes and severity of the sentences they would receive. If the businessmen had admitted to knowingly paying bribes to be awarded inflated public contracts, they could receive sentences high enough to actually serve jail time.

In contrast, if the judge determines they paid because they were blackmailed, they would be considered victims of the situation and be completely let off the hook. And public officials, on their end, could receive sentences of up to six years in prison. Bonadio has hinted he might be willing to go down this path: he released the three businessmen from pre-trial arrest after testifying, so unless he changes his mind they will mainly live normal lives – with the exception of potentially not being able to leave the country – while the investigation continues to unfold.

Judge Bonadio.

However, many were quick to point out at evidence suggesting otherwise: according to the notebooks, they also paid bribes on even years, when there are no elections. Moreover, the information that business people working for Brazilian construction company Odebrecht revealed in plea bargains of their own – in the context of the Lava Jato case, which however overlaps with this one as they both focus on kickbacks for public works – that the Argentine businessmen definitely paid bribes with other purposes.

For example, Iecsa was accused of paying bribes along Odebrecht to get the massive contract to move the Sarmiento train underground. La Nación‘s Hugo Alconada Mon reported that Brazilian Odebrecht representatives identified Javier Sánchez Caballero as the person who arranged the transaction with public officials. And Calcaterra confessed yesterday that all authorized bribes – in the context of the “notebooks” case at least – that were paid by his right-hand man.  Several other businessmen who did not take plea bargains were also named by Odebrecht representatives.

This and other questions will need to be answered as the case unfolds. The tactic allows the business leaders to present themselves as victims and argue they did not play a role in the embezzling of public funds used for the mentioned works. But it can prove to be risky: if the judge and prosecutor determine they were lied to, they will definitely be sent to prison.

The other private sector actors accused are implementing different strategies: some denied having committed a crime and are still behind bars; others were let go despite refusing to testify; and a few keep negotiating their fate with judicial officials. According to La Nación, Francisco Valenti, former Vice President of Industrias Metalúrgicas Pescarmona (Impsa) was negotiating yesterday the possibility of taking a plea bargain in exchange for being released. And Oscar Thomas, head of the bi-national entity Yacyretá, is the only one who is still on the run, but his lawyer said in an interview today that he will appear before the judge if he is promised he won’t go to prison.

The scenario is different on the other side of the proverbial counter. No Kirchnerite official or associate has hinted willingness to follow the steps of their private sector interlocutors. They will continue to testify during the coming days, the last of them being former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, set to do so next Monday, August 13th. Based on the answer to his questions (or lack thereof), Bonadio will decide whether to press charges.

The former President has not publicly spoken about the case and it is likely she will go to the Federal Courthouses of Comodoro Py on Monday, but refuse to answer questions and turn in a written statement instead. She is not at risk of going to prison any time soon, as she is protected by the parliamentary immunity her post as a Senator grants her, and any attempt to strip her from it would not get the necessary votes as the Unidad Ciudadana and Partido Justicialista (PJ) caucuses have already anticipated their reluctance to do so.

However, head of the PJ caucus Miguel Pichetto has publicly stated that he – and therefore the rest of his colleagues – is willing to comply with the judge’s request to allow her houses and offices to be searched. “We will decide tomorrow [for today] in a caucus meeting and in a [Senate] commission. But personally, I think we have to allow the raid. The [former] President herself should say ‘here are the keys,” said Pichetto in a TV interview.

However, it would be unlikely for these procedures to result in the finding of substantial information. The key element to ensure the success of a raid is surprise, as it prevents the accused from hiding any potentially incriminating information. And since the potential raids are being debated in public and for the span of days, the chances decrease exponentially.