Political triple-boiler heats up over the weekend

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Old partners in crime, soon to be back on the gravy train? On the left in this archive photo, then presiding Supreme Court magistrate Alejandro Moncada Luna, who, having been impeached and imprisoned for corruption, is out on parole now and practicing law again. In the middle is then president Ricardo Martinelli, who is in jail and has made a public spectacle that would end most political careers but wants to be the next mayor of Panama City. On the right is legislator Sergio Gálvez, the self-proclaimed “Sexual Buffalo.” He is now head of the legislature’s Credentials Committee, which could start impeachment proceedings against President Varela or any member of the Supreme Court. Photo from the Supreme Court’s archives.

Three political cauldrons boiling at once

by Eric Jackson

To blow off legal proceedings for violating the Transparency Law, the National Assembly’s presiding deputy Yanibel ‘Abrego promised that the information that she was withholding, the legislature’s Planilla 80 with all of the data about who is on the individual legislators’ government payrolls for how much, would be published online on Friday, July 6. Come the 6th it was not posted. Instead the nation was told that the information would be edited and then submitted to the Ministry of Economy and Finance — NOT the auditors from the Comptroller General’s office, let alone the Panamanian people. So now the apparent intention is not only to withhold, but to destroy, evidence of criminal conduct. That is not stopping all the calls from the anti-corruption activists and civic groups to publish the payroll, but it does mean that the legislature is thumbing its collective nose at these.

So might the ordinary prosecutors step in? As to employees on that payroll, real or no-show, they might. As to the legislators themselves, only the Supreme Court has jurisdiction.

But at about the same time we learned that Yanibel Ábrego had lied to us about publishing the payroll, we learned the identities of the new legislative committee chairs. It’s a true rogues gallery, worse than can be published under Panama’s criminal defamation laws but tawdry enough in terms of stuff published and for that matter flaunted over the years. Most notably, the notorious Sergio Gálvez is head of the Credentials Committee, which could impeach any high court magistrate who rules against a no-show “botella” employee on the legislature’s payroll, or any magistrate who votes to convict Gálvez’s fellow party member, Ricardo Martinelli. If President Varela doesn’t go along with any deal, impeachment proceedings against him would start in the Sexual Buffalo’s committee.

Might the legislature and president avoid nuclear options with a deal? That’s likely. He’s up against the legal spending limit and asking the legislature to go $300 million over it in the run-up to next May’s elections, and if the price is right — public funds to buy re-election votes — that deal would happen notwithstanding the law. After all, Ricardo Martinelli’s man, Eduardo Peñaloza, is the Electoral Prosecutor and he’s notorious for looking the other way.

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Meanwhile, there is a split on the Supreme Court — with new legislative pressures being brought to bear — about whether to decline jurisdiction over Ricardo Martinelli in mid-trial. If that happens there are various scenarios but what it likely means is that he walks out of jail and all charges for the crime wave he visited upon Panama for five years are dropped. On Monday we shall see how the vote goes.

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On Sunday, July 8, there begins a series of protests about an 8.3 percent hike in electricity rates for most businesses and for high residential users. From 8 to 9 p.m. people will turn off the lights in their homes or businesses to show their discontent. Further protests are scheduled for later in the week.

If it seems like a rich people’s concern, the rate hike to small businesses will quickly be transferred in price increases to the poor and middle class. There are folks ranging from communist labor leaders to wealthy business owners crying foul.

It’s not just the rate hike. It’s because that increase was imposed with the stated justification that it’s mostly because of cost overruns on construction of Line 3 of the state-owned ETESA power grid. That’s a project contracted out to the notorious Brazilian company Odebrecht. The original contract put the price at $273 million, including financing. The project is unfinished, the projected cost is now at $345 million and on top of that the power grid has had to pay an extra $135 million for the expenses entailed in not having the line installed when it was supposed to be. Odebrecht has a well known modus operandi, so the general presumption is that tens of millions in bribes have been paid in this transaction.

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