Tax and criminal prosecutors name many in often overlapping cases

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Adolfo “Chichi” De Obarrio, right, with the Martinellis. The modus operandi for most of the former president’s peculations was to make no-bid direct contracts with favored companies at inflated prices, with De Obarro — Ricardo Martinelli’s personal secretary — collecting 10 to 15 percent in kickbacks and distributing those illicit proceeds among the corrupt public officials and Martinelli business circle individuals involved in the transactions and the Cambio Democratico campaign fund. De Obarrio and both Martinellis have fled Panama. Photo by the Presidencia, way back when.

Some 235 pending cases, hundreds of millions in seized assets and dozens in jail, under house arrest or on the run

by Eric Jackson

Panama, like many other Civil Code legal system jurisdictions, allows lawyers to come into court and file motions on behalf of fugitives. And so it was that at a November 23 hearing on a kickback and theft case related to dried foods for school lunch programs, an attorney for the former president’s fugitive personal secretary and bag man Chichi De Obarrio moved to change the warrant to throw he guy in jail if he gets caught to house arrest. The judge summarily denied that motion but will take a month to decide whether to bind De Obarrio over for trial along with eight other people in that case. Defendants in that matter include former comptroller general Gioconda Torres de Bianchini, former education minister Lucy Molinar and public works minister Federico Suaréz, plus a cast of lesser characters, most of them former public officials. If Chichi gets locked up over the school lunch program, he will be shuttling between the jail and various courtrooms on several other cases as well.

Meanwhile the former comptroller general, along with former agriculture ministers Emilio Kieswetter and Oscar Osorio, head a cast of 11 characters named by the tax prosecutor as having stolen at least $22.6 in a Tonosi irrigation scheme that was never built and which it appears was never intended to be built. The diversion of money from that scheme, criminal prosecutors allege, involved the Banco Universal and its former leading light Felipe “Pipo” Virzi, fugitive businessmen Gabriel Btesh and Ricky Calvo, plus the Financial Pacific brokerage house. Virzi is under house arrest here, the whereabouts of Calvo, like De Obarrio, are a mystery, while by a number of reports that have not been officially confirmed Btesh is in Israel. The Financial Pacific case against Martinelli is just getting underway in the Supreme Court and with the time limit on investigations now removed it may branch off into the Tonosi matter. Co-defendants who are not legislators can’t be brought into the high court case against Martinelli, but information from that investigation may be shared with ordinary prosecutors for criminal cases arising from the same schemes and with tax prosecutors.

Overlapping both the Tonosi and Financial Pacific cases are the tax and criminal investigations into the Cobranzas del Istmo privatized tax collection scheme. In the Financial Pacific matter the insider trading investigation against Martinelli appears to be farther along than various other probes against many other players in that money laundering mill for criminals of several nations. Allegations about attempts to cover up crimes at Financial Pacific touch the Supreme Court’s presiding magistrate, José Ayú Prado and could end up in a murder case as Securities Market Superintendency senior analyst Vernon Ramos, who was handling an administrative investigation, disappeared three years ago. In the Cobranzas del Istmo case three separate criminal matters were consolidated into one case on November 21, but the Martinelli part of that probe will be separate, new suspects may be added to the ordinary criminal case and the tax prosecutor’s shoe has yet to drop.

In early October Attorney General Kenia Porcell said that her office had 234 corruption investigations underway, with 31 people being held in preventive detention and some $140 million in assets seized or frozen. But this did not count those processed by the Supreme Court, the legislature or the tax prosecutors. Since then a few of those who were in jail have been granted bail and a few more people have been jailed, there have been more asset seizures or freezes by various agencies and tax cases have been brought.

A lot of rogues’ gallery charts that have appeared in various media are not so helpful, as the presumptions about control and causation are not defined as in, say, a governmental organization chart. The more realistic way to make any such chart would be of concentric circles with overlapping segments but Ricardo Martinelli at the center. There is a reasonably good chance that a December 11 hearing will lead to a request for INTERPOL help in Martinelli’s arrest and extradition to Panama.

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