The Via Brasil viaduct and corridor project, a $174.5 million job which the comptroller general says was overpriced by $41.7 million. Attorney Mauricio Cort, former public works minister Pepe Suárez and two others are named as suspects in a rigged bid and bribery / kickback scheme with respect to this project. Photo by MOP.
Public works bribe scandals widen and connect with alleged key figure now jailed
by Eric Jackson
Mauricio Cort is a Panamanian lawyer who organizes international money laundering webs. Fingered in a number of countries’ legal systems as such with respect to bribes that the Brazilian company Odebrecht paid out, in November of 2018 he struck a plea bargain with Panamanian prosecutors n which he paid a $50,000 fine in lieu of serving four years in prison for his dealings with that company.
Then, earlier this year, allegations began to surface with respect to his work for the Spanish company FCC, also a major public works construction contractor in Panama. In February of 2017 a former outside counsel for Odebrecht, Rodrigo Tacla, now convicted and turned state’s evidence in Spain, recounted a tale of how, when Odebrecht and FCC were in a consortium to build Line 1 of Panama City’s Metro commuter rail system, Odebrecht proposed to bribe Metro secretary general (and minister of canal affairs) Roberto Roy. However, Tacla alleged, Roy who preferred to paid through FCC, given Odebrecht’s notoriety.
Roy indignantly denied it and any dealings between FCC and Roy would have been hearsay to Tacla. Nothing came of the tale at the time, largely due to a decision by Judge Lania Batista that the Odebrecht case was taking too long for her satisfaction so no other suspects or defendants could be added to the case.
Now, Panamanian attorney Mauricio Court is reported in the Spanish media to be under criminal investigation in the tiny Pyrenees mountain money laundering jurisdiction of Andorra for his work on behalf of FCC. The Andorrans allege that in 2010 Cort, known for similar work on behalf of Odebrecht, was put in charge of procuring contracts for FCC, then majority owned and controlled by Esther Koplowitz. Cort would get a 4% cut of each contract won, and ultimately these included the Luis Chicho Fabrega Hospital in Santiago, the Electoral Tribunal headquarters in Curundu, in a consortium with two other companies excavation on the Pacific entrance to the new Panama Canal locks, repair work on the Centennial Bridge over the canal and the Via Brasil viaduct corridor. These, in addition to the 2010 contract for the Metro’s Line 1. Cort was involved all told in more than $2 billion in Panamanian public works contracts, if one adds the published numbers for those projects.
Andorran police say that through a chain of shell companies and accounts in the Banca Privada d’Andorra (BPA), which is and has been in trouble for several years over many money laundering cases. It is alleged that hundreds of millions of illicit dollars made their way through BPA to Ricardo Martinelli’s two fugitive sons via shells that Cort set up.
Consider the Panamanian institutions that would have been witting accomplices or unwitting dupes if the corruption allegations are all true with respect to all of those projects. The Panama Canal Authority. The Electoral Tribunal. The Ministry of Health. The Ministry of Public Works. The Metro. All of this between 2010 and 2014, unless there have been political limits imposed and the practices continued into the Varela administration.
Taken in a June 21 raid on his home in Costa del Este, and with his law office raided simultaneously, Cort was ordered held in preventive detention over the Via Brasil project. Pepe Suárez and two other individuals are also named in the case. Suárez is out on $2 million bail. If Cort received anything like the amounts specified in the deal with FCC alleged by Andorran police, he should be able to pay if he is given bail terms comparable to those that Suárez received.
What does FCC have to say about it? That company was acquired between 2014 and 2016 by Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim. Company spokespeople decline to comment on the grounds that it involves people who no longer work for FCC.
The Electoral Tribunal headquarters. Given the institution’s much praised financial automomy, what sort of political fallout would there be if magistrates or other top officials there are found to have taken bribes from FCC? Photo by the Tribunal Electoral.
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