Moving dirt in a deepening crisis
by Eric Jackson
To recap the action while the president has been mostly away:
- The National Assembly passed a resolution to reconfigure its Credentials Committee, reducing President Varela’s Panameñista Party from four of the nine seats to two. The Panameñista Party called the decision null and void.
- The Panameñistas filed a constitutional challenges — “amparo de garantías — with the administrative bench of the Supreme Court. After a brief delay, magistrate Abel Zamorano agreed to accept it. Pending further decision of the court — a three-member administrative law panel, and then maybe ta full nine-member panel of the entire court, with alternates probably filling in because two members’ terms have expired and even if they remain members until replaced they probably would not take part — the legislature’s resolution is suspended and can’t be put into effect.
- PRD leader Pedro Miguel González, the resolution’s main proponent, said that Zamorano’s decision is null and void. National Assembly president Yanibel Ábrego, of the Cambio Democrático Party, urged Zamorano to change his mind.
- Meanwhile, the Motta family has no political party as such but they are the leading lights of the Independent Movement (MOVIN). They arguably might consider one of their own, independent legislator and presidential candidate Ana Matilde Gómez, to be their only voice in the National Assembly. They supported Juan Carlos Varela’s election but broke with him over corruption scandals but meanwhile are close to former La Prensa director and former diplomat Federico Humbert, who is the Comptroller General. MOVIN urged him to act quickly against legislators who may have committed crimes by way of abusing millions of dollars allotted to them during the Martinelli administration. This is most of the current legislature, people from every party, but not all of them stole or bought votes with the money. Still, when such funds are laundered through a corregimiento’s junta comunal — which is subject neither to the comptroller’s prior controls nor to ordinary record keeping — that’s usually a sign that criminal activity is afoot.
- In a few days, Humbert did as MOVIN advised, delivering 220 boxes full of documents to Attorney General Kenia Porcell’s office and acknowledging that he doesn’t send things to the prosecutors unless he believes that a crime has been committed.
So, has Varela, or MOVIN, or the high court, called the legislature’s bluff?
Probably it’s a bluff and perhaps a delay, as would be Zamorano’s acceptance of the case.
Humbert’s submission to Porcell is the product of some three years of labor by dozens of auditors. If one wants to get cynical about it one might call it a grand political patronage bonanza for a force that arguably got no votes from the general electorate, a triumph for the cause of full employment for accountants. But the Public Ministry that Porcell leads doesn’t have an army of forensic accountants. They have only a relative few prosecutors adept at handling financial crimes. If, with that small staff, the prosecutors take as long with their work as the comptroller’s office has, the corruption cases go away due to the statutes of limitation.
It might be that Humbert has sent cheat sheets and assigned auditors to work with the prosecutors, so we should not presume that Porcell’s team will have to re-invent the wheel. Still, they would be hard-pressed for resources and would have to go to the president and legislature for more funding to take on this job.
Three witnesses, a paper trail and a lame admission (it was a donation, not a bribe, he now pleads, after previous categorical denials) say that Varela took millions from Odebrecht. That case would be handled by the legislature, not the ordinary prosecutors or courts, were bribery and money laundering charges brought against the president. But the regular prosecutors and courts would have jurisdiction over the accomplices and potential witnesses at an impeachment trial. Would Varela want to lob a nuclear weapon at the National Assembly by recommending extra funds for anti-corruption prosecutors? Especially, would he want to do this because one of the people whom it seems that Humbert fingers is the president’s brother, José Luis “Popi” Varela?
And if the president made such a special budget request, would the legislature vote to fund a criminal investigation of most of its members?
As to Zamorano’s stay that blocks a change in the Credentials Committee, it’s a pretty audacious intervention by the judiciary branch into a legislative matter. Especially so, given that the committee configuration that was overturned was unconstitutional on its face. But really, so what? On July 1 the last session of the current National Assembly begins and they will as part of their ordinary business reconfigure all legislative committees. Varela’s party does not have the votes and will not have the votes to maintain four members on the Credentials Committee. Between now and then, if the Panameñistas try to pretend that nothing has happened and jam anything through the Credentials Committee as it was, the assembly as a whole will vote it down.