Old games, some trying to write new rules
by Eric Jackson
If you are a member of Panama’s National Assembly, you can generally kill somebody, or use your official vehicle to smuggle drugs, and pay no legal consequences. Those things have happened under the current arrangements.
On December 27, 2017, Cambio Democratico legislator Mario Lazarus ran over and killed 14-year-old Ruth Parreño, who was waiting for a bus at a stop on the Transistmica in the Colon corregimiento of Buena Vista that was part of the circuit he represented. Lazarus drove away from the scene, and later returned.
Creating that disconnect between the death and the driver’s reappearance, however, had an effect that would not apply to an ordinary person. Members of the National Assembly, and various other public officials, are protected by the Summary Proof Rule. Under that legal doctrine – if one wants to glorify it as such – a criminal complaint against a legislator can only proceed if there is complete and admissible proof that a crime was committed and that she or he committed it. Lacking such proof, there can be no investigation. But if someone investigated and compiled such proof as to attach to the complaint, that was an illegal investigation and that bars any proceeding, including a proper investigation. But there is an exception for that if somebody is caught flagrantly in the act.
So the cop is called to the scene of a fatally injured girl at a bus stop, an important muckety muck with blood on his car and alcohol on his breath is there as well, and it might be said that the driver was caught in the act and no matter the high and mighty position the cop can proceed as with anyone else. But missing the driver, who comes back a few minutes later after the girl has been taken to the hospital where she died, and taking a breathalyzer test or examining the car would be an investigation without proper judicial authorization to begin. Doing such basic evidence collection would preclude any investigation in the future. So the police, without having had the opportunity to gather all the relevant facts, referred what little they did have to the Supreme Court, which has exclusive jurisdiction over criminal matters involving legislators.
About a month later Supreme Court magistrate Angela Russo showed up at the accident scene for a reconstruction, and the girl’s family was there, holding placards demanding justice. Lazarus said it was dark and everything happened so fast and he didn’t really remember. He brought along a crowd of rent-a-protesters that outnumbered the family at least two-to-one, carrying placards about how it’s a sin to hate. Say what? See, Lazarus is a member of Ricky Martinelli’s kleptocratic Cambio Democratico party, of the faction that puts on airs about being born-again Christians.
In the end, Lazarus made a financial settlement with the family, the high court said that was good enough and a hit-and-run killer got away with it due to his special privileged position. Not entirely, though. His fellow party members figuring that he was a loser, Lazarus quit Cambio Democratico to run for re-election on the MOLIRENA ticket, that is, in the 2019 elections as a ally of the PRD. The hateful infidels of Colon’s Circuit 3-1 voted the guy out of office.
A lot of other deputies who stole over the past five years, however, are back in the new legislature. Bocas del Toro deputy Benicio Robinson, a National Assembly veteran and leading member of the PRD, also heads FEDEBEIS, the national baseball federation that’s part of the Panamanian Sports Institute (PANDEPORTES) and the Panamanian Olympic Committee (COP). Almost all of the sports federations, and thus the COP, are controlled by politicians. In the legislature there are claims that money for sports programs in the circuits come from PANDEPORTES and are distributed through the deputies’ offices.
Like the money allocated via FEDBEIS for a baseball league in Guna Yala that doesn’t exist. Like the purchases of bats for $354.80 each, except when audited by the Comptroller General no trace could be found that the bats ever existed. (All they found was a paper trail of money transfers.) Like the $100,000 for xenophobe firebrand Zulay Rodríguez, whose sports program never actually existed except for money that passed through it, in the names of close aides as administrators of a program that never was. And on and on and on – more than $400 million went through the legislators’ offices in the past five years and relatively little of it was accounted for in any sort of a credible way.
The comptroller has a constitutional mandate to audit all expenditures of public funds, but if he or she finds theft it becomes a matter for prosecutors, in the case of ordinary people referred to the regular ones of the Public Ministry, in the case of legislators referred to the Supreme Court. In the ordinary course of things, the investigation may involve both those with the special privileges and those without, but as soon as a deputy’s name comes up the Attorney General sends that file to the Supreme Court without taking any action on it.
Change of government time, and all of the detectives with the Department of Judicial Investigations who are working on PANDEPORTES case are removed from their posts. By a pro-corruption 2007 law, DIJ agents investigating public corruption are prohibited from telling anyone other than prosecutors about such work – INCLUDING another DIJ agent who gets put onto the case. Attorney General Kenia Porcell says that by removing the DIJ officers from the investigations of the PANDEPORTES heist, deputies Robinson, Rodríguez et al beat the rap on procedural grounds.
Meanwhile, the legislators are making noises about removing Comptroller General Federico Humbert and Attorney General Kenia Porcell. But those are legislative appointees who would have to be charged and tried by the Supreme Court, not the National Assembly. Once removed, they could be replaced by pliant crooks whose marching orders would be not to audit and not to investigate.
So, move along, folks. Nothing happening here. So it is hoped, and so history might indicate the finding will be.
However, with no legal leverage of which to speak, there is an online groundswell building. Although it’s about a system and most of the legislators, it takes its focus on Benicio Robinson. The hashtag is #BenicioRenuncia and those who have started to use it take heart from a similarly hopeless and mocked lost cause, the relatively peaceful uprising that recently forced the resignation of Puerto Rico’s governor.
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