Fruit of the toxic tree.
Attorney general moves to try 59 in the Blue Apple public works contracts kickbacks and money laundering case
by Eric Jackson
This past Wednesday, September 11, the Sixth Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s office filed a court motion to bring 59 defendants to trial on various charges in the Blue Apple case. A Friday night notice by the Public Ministry (the attorney general’s office) acknowledged the filing and said that there would be a Monday, September 16 press conference to provide further details and perhaps answer questions from selected media.
Blue Apple was a purported factoring company that was an intermediary in systematic pubic works contract kickbacks during the Martinelli administration. While the Brazilian company Odebrecht and the Spanish company FCC are perhaps more notorious for this racket, the Blue Apple clientele read as a virtual Who’s Who of Panamanian building contractors who bid on government business, or who subcontract for those who do.
Late last year it was known that 62 persons had been named. However, some of the individuals and companies have made plea bargains and would not be involved in the trial, if the courts allow it to proceed. How many potential defendants have been dropped for lack of evidence or diverted to other files due to plea bargains is not know, nor the number and identities of any new defendants added. A dozen people are and have been imprisoned on preventive detention in this case so far.
The two most prominent fugitives in this case are Ricardo Martinelli’s two sons, who are being harbored by the Trump administration in the United States. That might change if extraditions papers are filed in the USA, but the two were arrested for being in the United States illegally, then released on bail rather than given the bum’s rush out of the country as happens to many another undocumented immigrant. A politically exposed person need not even enjoy an opportunity to clog up the courts, but might be summarily expelled from the United States for matters of state.
Might Ricardo Martinelli himself be charged? He and his lawyers say that there can be no criminal proceedings against him, now that he has been “exonerated” on illegal wiretapping and theft charges in a decision seen by nearly everyone except his supporters and those political figures who have a stake in upholding impunity as corrupt. That, supposedly, because of the international legal concept of “exceptionality,” which means that ordinarily a person extradited for one matter may not be tried for another charge. But the concept is not absolute, is not uniformly interpreted around the world, and is not included in one of the two treaties invoked for Martinelli’s extradition. One common interpretation of the rule is that upon acquittal a defendant has the right to return to from whence she or he was extradited. But would the Trump administration let Ricardo Martinelli back into Miami? And if Martinelli doesn’t leave Panama for wherever he may be taken in, does he lose whatever protection he may have had? It is known that as early as this past January the Public Ministry was studying that concept and whether it might apply here. The norm might just be that it says whatever the magistrates are bribed to say it means to say.
Those named as probable defendants also include former first lady Marta Linares de Martinelli, former public works minister Federico José Suárez, former Ministry of Public Works contracting chief Jorge Churro Ruiz and former Global Bank vice president for factoring Joaquín Rodríguez Salcedo. There has been a tight lid on information about which construction companies and their officers or employees are involved.
And why the delay on pursuing this case, which appears to be linked to a number of other cases in which charges have been dropped mostly on procedural grounds? This was a Martinelli administration arrangement, but former president Varela hinted that he was not too interested in pursuing the matter as to his government’s contracting procedures because it might disqualify almost all of the larger construction firms here.
The case moved just as President Cortizo receives a bill passed by the National Assembly to legalize corporate criminals who have made plea arrangements and paid their fines to bid on government contracts.
This would be a long and complicated trial, involving at least six forms of deception for the laundering of bribes and kickbacks. So what if it extends until after December 31? That’s when Attorney General Porcell’s term ends and the heavily compromised legislature seems agreed on replacing her with somebody who will end all criminal prosecutions for corruption. Under Panama’s constitution the appointment of the attorney general is entirely a legislative matter, although a president can use budget strings to manipulate deputies about these sorts of things.