21-fold increase in corrruption cases, but…
by Eric Jackson
At the end of May, after weeks of stories about high-profile public corruption suspects getting out on bail mostly on condition of not leaving Panama, the Public Ministry let the press and public know of a spectacular increase in the number of criminal cases about embezzlement, graft and other such raids on the public treasury. There were 35 open cases at the beginning of the year, and the between then and the end of April 734 new ones were added.
So is Panama getting tough on crime in high places? Not really. A few high-profile private sector defendants who were involved in government contracting made plea bargains that not only keep them out of prison but preserve their ability to bid on government contracts. Part of their deals is usually to tell all, which means that secretaries and bag men and women are named along with an ultimate beneficiary or two. The people who actually got the big kickbacks for overpriced contracts of course say it’s all a pack of lies, except for a very few who make their own plea bargains, in the course of which they tend to name mostly underlings. The huge increase coincides with the Blue Apple scandal, which involves most of the larger construction companies doing business in Panama, some financial institutions and a relatively few former public officials. The people at the top appear to have made out like bandits. (This genre of banditry is not much for the firearms displays, but do not be fooled.) The new cases are generally not people at the top.
Meanwhile, the Comptroller General has suspended payments to those on 11 legislators’ payrolls, claiming various irregularities. There may be some botellas there — phantom employees who may not even know they were such, whose alleged salaries go into the pocket of their claimed employer legislators. However, it seems that in at least some of the cases there may have been sloppy records but there was no dishonesty. Reports and records have been forwarded to prosecutors. And indeed, criminal complaints have been filed — against the comptroller for having the audacity to audit the legislature’s expenditures. Those have been quickly dismissed, but it seems that more are coming.
Meanwhile, hundreds of residency visas and work permits have been revoked for fraud. But no immigration official, nor any attorney, is facing prosecution for being a party to any of these frauds.
Meanwhile, prosecutors say that at least $1.9 million was laundered through the Financial Pacific brokerage firm and ended up in the “New Business” account linked to Ricardo Martinelli’s purchase of newspapers and broadcast stations with funds siphoned out of the public treasury. There is no move yet to strip the former president of his media empire.
Meanwhile, the cases of hundreds of millions of dollars of national government funds laundered through juntas comunales — community councils — for vote buying purposes in the 2014 Ricardo Martinelli proxy re-election campaign is stalled. Whether Martinelli himself ever faces justice over this remains to be seen — the Supreme Court rather than the ordinary prosecutors have jurisdiction — but this stall is in the cases of Martinelli’s men and women.
So there is little public appreciation of or enthusiasm for this year’s numerical crackdown on public corruption that Attorney General Kenia Porcell claims.