One of the biggest scandals in the Cambiemos era, sparked by a journalistic investigation which alleged that officials laundered money for the 2017 midterms campaign in the Buenos Aires Province through citizens oblivious to the maneuvers, is no longer able to inflict legal damage to the coalition.
Because in December, a Court of Appeals with electoral competence in the Buenos Aires Province determined that an electoral judge must agglutinate all investigation launched as a result of the accusation.
Before this decision was made, three separate courts, two of which had criminal competence, were handling similar cases. Now they are all under the sphere of influence of electoral judge Adolfo Ziulu.
The Cambiemos officials who have been accused, provincial Governor María Eugenia Vidal among them, can see this as a victory because, even though this case can still very much have detrimental political effects, it practically cannot in the legal landscape. Why? In the eyes of the judiciary, electoral crimes are much less serious than regular ones – such as money laundering or forgery, of which they had been accused before the criminal courts – and consequently, any potential sentence would also be much lower.
The Center of Investigation and Prevention of Economic Criminality (CIPCE) emphatically criticized the decision, arguing that neither the Political Parties Financing Law nor the National Electoral Code establish that electoral judges have exclusive competence to investigate crimes such as forgery.
Since in this case the Cambiemos officials are also being accused of fabricating documents to have these “contributors” join the party and pledge funds, a crime that is included in the criminal code and not the electoral one, the CIPCE argues it should remain in criminal courts.
Regardless of the criticism, the electoral court is now in charge of the only formal investigation regarding the alleged actions. And if Judge Ziulu were to determine the accused are guilty, then they will likely be subjected to public condemnation, as it would be proven they stole the identity of social welfare recipients and used them to launder money of uncertain origins. However, they would not go to prison because of this, meaning that the tangible effects would be slim.
Article 63 of the Political Parties Financing Law indicates that “the president and treasurer of the party can be banned from running for public office when they cannot duly prove the origin or destiny of the funds received.”
However, the larger parties never name their high-profile figures as president or treasurer – precisely because of this reason – and, therefore, Cambiemos would not be significantly affected by an unfavorable sentence.
After initially dismissing the accusation as “Kirchnerite,” Vidal ordered an audit on the campaign contributions, and fired the administration’s Accountant General María Fernanda Inza, as she was Cambiemos’ treasurer during the campaign and therefore in charge of declaring the origins of said donations.
When consulted about the matter in an interview with Infobae in December, Governor Vidal indicated that the audit’s preliminary results showed there were “administrative irregularities,” but nonetheless assured no crimes were committed.
“Surely there were checking mistakes. We were not able to check where the funds came in each jurisdiction we raised them from. I do think that was a mistake in the way we handled the campaign. It is a mistake that affects me personally, because if there is something I have stood for throughout my political career, is honesty. I can make good and bad decisions in my administration, I am human and it is something that can happen. But honesty has always been my main asset,” Vidal said.
“Do you think you can justify those campaign funds?” Vidal was asked. “Of course. And if that is not the case, I will do it myself. I don’t have anything to hide,” she replied.
Página 12 reported that on December 10, before the Court of Appeals ruling was issued, Cambiemos filed a corrected list of the people who – allegedly – contributed to its campaign. While the previous one included those who assured to not have done so, this one replaced tens of the.
However, the list of alleged fake contributors is not circumscribed to recipients of welfare programs. Several current and former Cambiemos officials also showed up as such; similar to the others consulted, they all denied having knowingly made contributions. Former City of Buenos Aires Culture Minister Darío Lopérfido and current General Pueyrredón Mayor Carlos Arroyo are some of the most notable names that have popped up.
In fact, former Cambiemos candidate for the 2015 Ituzaingó district mayoral elections and “fake contributor,” Gustavo Marasco, proactively appeared before a judge to personally reject contributing AR $50,000 to the 2017 campaign.“One-hundred percent of the contributors are fake,” Marasco told Diagonales newspaper. “They whitewashed money by copying the lists of candidates we sent to the electoral board and assigned them amounts of up to AR $50,000,” he explained.
These crimes are not the only ones Cambiemos officials have been accused of.
In October, El Destape published audio tapes where a National Deputy from Cambiemos, Gastón Roma, seems to admit to forging signatures, as well as giving people positions in the government in exchange for money. More precisely, 10 percent of their future salaries.
Moreover, Perfil revealed in November that, when still leading one of the investigations, Criminal Judge Erneto Kreplak heard testimonies from five people who, on paper, contributed to the campaign through bank deposits of between AR $20,000 and AR $25,000 pesos. However, none of the people interviewed so far have any memory of making these donations, let alone have the resources to give away that much money.
The same website has also published documents indicating that in March 2017, the City government granted extraordinary bonuses, which oscillated between AR $10,000 and AR $120,000, to 22 employees working in different areas of the administration. Three months later, and on the same day, 11 of them donated AR $25,000 in cash, and one AR $20,000, to the electoral campaign. Overall, the figure amounts to AR $295,000.
Following the scandal, the government introduced a bill aimed at modifying the legal framework of campaign financing. The bill says that contributions, which can currently be made in cash and in an anonymous manner, would from then on be effectuated through bank transfers, check, credit or debit card and digital platforms. In other words, ways that allow authorities to identify the donor and the origin of the funds.
Moreover, it indicates that banks or credit card companies would have to inform the party of the people’s identity, in order to let them reject donations if they want to.
The law was supposed to be voted during the extraordinary congressional sessions that took place in December, but this did not happen in the end because government and opposition are in a gridlock: Cambiemos wants to allow companies to donate funds, and the opposition does not. As long as the disagreement continues, parties will still be able to use cash donations for their campaigns, with little to no accountability.