The business leaders involved in the “notebooks scandal” continue to testify before the courts. At the time of doing so, most have adopted the same strategy: they’ve taken plea bargains and provided information relevant enough for the case in exchange for a reduction in a potential sentence.
The first one to do so was Juan Carlos De Goycoechea, from Spanish company Isolux. He confessed to having given bags filled with cash, like Oscar Centeno meticulously detailed in the notebooks he wrote during the years in which he worked for Deputy Planning Minister during the Kirchner administrations, Roberto Baratta, but assured he did so against his will. He said company officials were coerced by government officials to “contribute to the electoral campaigns,” who threatened economic harm if they didn’t.
De Goycoechea’s confession kicked off a domino effect, as other suspects from the private sector rushed to follow his steps, echoing the explanation. So far, the others are Iecsa’s Javier Sánchez Caballero and Ángelo Calcaterra – first cousin of President Mauricio Macri – Héctor Zabaleta (Techint), Jorge Neira (Electroingeniería), Claudio Glazman (Latinoamericana de Inversiones), and Armando Loson (Grupo Albanesi).
However, the scenario changed on Friday afternoon, when former head of the Argentine Consturction Chamber, Carlos Wagner, testified before Federal Prosecutor Carlos Stornelli. In contrast with the cohesive explanation from his counterparts, he indicated that he had actually paid bribes and described a corruption scheme whereby companies had to pay between 10 and 20 percent of the – inflated – total cost of a public work as a kickback, in order to be awarded it.
“Wagner explained that the ‘Public Works Club’ [‘el Club de la Obra Pública’ in Spanish, the way the group of companies that were usually awarded the contracts was known], decided which three companies would bid in the tenders, agreed on the budgets they would present, and then would decide who would win. That company had to pay the bribes,” reads an article from Infobae which recounts the information provided by Wagner.
Given his post, Wagner was an interlocutor between the Kirchner administrations and the private companies bidding for state contracts. Therefore, his statements are set to raise suspicion among Prosecutor Stornelli and Judge Bonadio, who could consider the possibility that the business leaders who preceded Wagner lied to them.
- Read more: ‘Notebooks of Corruption’ Roundup: Business Leader Close to the Kirchners Takes a Plea Deal
“Contributing to a campaign ‘under the table’ is a less serious crime than partaking in an illicit association aimed at embezzling public funds, along with public officials. While the former could get them a virtual slap on the wrist, as a potential sentence would not send them behind bars, that would not be the case with the latter: article 210 of the Criminal Code establishes that members of the association receive sentences ranging between three and 10 years. Since in Argentina convicted criminals only go to prison if they receive sentences that are three years or more, the chances of actually doing so are high.
However, the strategy has an enormous potential of to backfire, big time. If judicial officials are able to determine that the business leaders provided false information at the time of getting a plea bargain, they will definitely go to prison, and for a much longer period of time. Article 276 of the Criminal Code indicates that those who maliciously provide false or inexact information will receive a sentence ranging between four and 10 years, and see their plea deals cancelled.
The investigation could in fact end up concluding that some business leaders paid bribes and others “only” contributed to electoral campaigns – whether willingly or not. But Stornelli and Bonadio are already skeptical, considering that many of them gave money to Baratta in non-electoral years. We will find out what they determine soon enough.