After shaking the entire political and economic landscape with explosive allegations against its main figures, the so-called “notebooks scandal” entered a prolonged plateau. However, in the past few weeks, developments concerning new characters could reveal key information that moves the case forward.
You probably haven’t heard about most of them: Juan Manuel Campillo, Isidro Bounine, Elisabet Municoy. But at the forefront of them all stands a woman called Carolina Pochetti. She is the widow of Daniel Muñoz, who was the private secretary of late President Néstor Kirchner.
Muñoz was always a controversial character. Before working for Kirchner in 2003 – when Néstor’s first administration began – the only asset to his name was a car. In 2016, before his passing later that year, Muñoz owned at least US$ 70 million worth of real estate in the United States. These properties included a US $13.5 million apartment in New York’s Plaza Hotel.
Given the unlikelihood of racking up such a fortune with the salary of a private secretary, many speculate that those funds had one of two possible origins: either Muñoz regularly stole chunks of embezzled public funds from his superior, or he was acting as his front-man. What is certain, nonetheless, is his contact with this ill-gotten money: different characters accused in the context of the “notebooks scandal” assured that Muñoz was always the one to receive the bags full of cash that were delivered to the Kirchners, whether in their Recoleta apartment or any of their properties in the Santa Cruz Province.
In case you don’t remember, the former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner stands indicted in the case, accused of heading the unlawful association tasked with laundering previously embezzled funds. Her assets have been seized for AR $1.5 billion.
How does Pochetti come into the picture, then? In September last year, she was put under pre-trial arrest by Federal Judge Claudio Bonadio and Prosecutor Carlos Stornelli, after being accused of having taken part in the allegedly illicit dealings of her late husband.
The judicial officials argued that the ill-gotten money was siphoned to offshore companies owned – at least on paper – by Muñoz and Pochetti, or their own alleged front-people: Sergio Todisco and his wife, Elisabeth Municoy. In fact, the 2016 Panama Papers revealed the nature of offshore companies created by Muñoz and Pochetti.
Initially, Pochetti denied any wrongdoing, saying she never got involved in her husband’s businesses. This argument prompted Bonadio to order she be kept in pre-trial arrest, as other accused who were also allegedly involved in the same illegal financial operations assured Pochetti was indeed aware of them.
Perhaps because of that reason, Pochetti changed her mind: she has spent the past few days in the federal courthouses of Comodoro Py, negotiating a plea bargain. Therefore, she will have to provide new information that allows Bonadio and Stornelli to strengthen their case, in exchange for a reduced sentence.
Bonadio is certain that the money, regardless of its original owner, was not earned legally. “Considering Muñoz and the other accused’s lack of economic capability, it is evident that the money obtained through criminal activities could have potentially been used to buy the properties,” reads a paragraph of the indictment.
Therefore, we are looking at two scenarios: if Pochetti claims that the Kirchners were not aware of her and Muñoz’s operations, she would still have to justify the origins of the funds. As mentioned, Bonadio assures that it comes from corruption-related activities orchestrated by the then-presidential family, so chances are he won’t believe Pochetti is she tells him the money came from elsewhere.
However, if Pochetti reveals that she and her husband were effectively front-people and didn’t really own the property, all indicators would point to the Kirchners. This hypothetical scenario would potentially provide enough evidence to establish, for the first time, a direct link between the former presidents and ill-gotten assets.
So far, however, the information provided by Pochetti in her different testimonies does not seem to be compelling enough, as Bonadio has not approved the plea bargain.
Nonetheless, Pochetti’s is the last link of a succession of statements provided by other people accused in hopes of reaching a deal. Elizabeth Municoy, one of Muñoz’s alleged front-people, former Treasury Secretary of the Santa Cruz Province, Juan Manuel Campillo and a former secretary of former President Cristina Kirchner, Isidro Bounine, have also made headlines for the same motive.
Municoy indicated in her testimony that Campillo, the former Santa Cruz official, worked as an intermediary in the purchase of the real estate in the United States. For his work, Municoy said, Campillo received US $5 million.
Despite initially rejecting any involvement, Campillo reached a plea deal in January after pointing fingers to Bounine, a person closer to Cristina Kirchner. Campillo said that Bounine had ties with Muñoz and was tasked with facilitating the legal advice to purchase the real estate. Unlike other former secretaries who have been acquitted in the case, Bounine is still in pre-trial arrest. According to Clarín‘s Eduardo Van der Kooy, one of Bounine’s duties was collecting bribes from two state contractors.
Bounine is still in prison and it is uncertain if, like Pochetti, he will want to use any information he considers relevant and unknown to negotiate a plea bargain.
Regardless of the total evidence that ends up being collected, Clarín reported that Bonadio intends to send the case to trial in May. This means that some of the public hearings would take place during key moments of the electoral campaign. Although Kirchner has not confirmed whether or not she will run, she is undoubtedly the leader of the movement.
Images of her going to court – not only because of this case, but others too – instead of leading campaign rallies, is likely to have an impact in the way the Kirchnerite campaign is conducted.