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Legislative bribery scandals explode into a constitutional crisis

by Eric Jackson

It's not corruption as usual anymore.

The issue has come to the point where Mireya Moscoso is publicly telling members of the Supreme Court to shut up, a broad coalition of decidedly unradical groups and individuals is demanding the resignations of several high court magistrates and Attorney General Sossa, most legislators are hiding out from the press and public and Supreme Court president Adán Arnulfo Arjona admits that a point of no return has been passed. The phrase “constitutional crisis” is being uttered by leaders of the legal profession and it’s hard to find someone who argues otherwise.

The crisis came by way of a Supreme Court decision quashing investigations into alleged bribery to procure legislative approval of the CEMIS container handling and airport expansion project and to get President Moscoso’s nominations of Supreme Court magistrates Alberto Cigarruista and Winston Spadafora and their suplentes ratified. The scandal first erupted when two PRD members and another minor party legislator who had been voting with the PRD broke ranks and supported Moscoso’s nominees, giving her the margin to ratify the nominations and effectively take over both the Supreme Court and the Legislative Assembly. On the assembly floor right after the vote, San Miguelito legislator Balbina Herrera accused one of the renegades, Carlos Afú, of accepting a $1.5 million bribe to approve the president’s nominees. Afú then held a press conference where he waved $6,000 in cash and said that it had been delivered to him in a manila envelope as part of a massive scheme to bribe the legislature to approve the CEMIS contract.

A consolidated investigation of both sets of charges was begun, at a time between legislative sessions when the deputies’ immunity from investigation and arrest didn’t apply, but the probe was suspended five days before the next regular Legislative Assembly session began and thereafter Mireya Moscoso scheduled a series of special sessions that maintained the legislators’ immune status. (The Panamanian constitution provides that legislators are immune during and five days before and after assembly sessions, including both regular and special sessions.) Herrera and number of other legislators volunteered to set aside their immunity, but the now Arnulfista- dominated assembly as a whole never acted to accept that and finally passed a resolution purporting to order an end to the criminal investigations against its members. Ultimately Attorney General Sossa recommended that Afú be prosecuted for admittedly taking a bribe and that the promoter and former chief executive of CEMIS should face charges with him, but Sossa turned the matter over to the Supreme Court for its consideration.

The court, in a 6-3 decision in which the deciding votes were cast by the two suplentes whose ratification was allegedly procured through bribery, held that the corruption investigations were illegal because they were unauthorized by the legislature.

One of the dissenting magistrates, Supreme Court president Adán Arnulfo Arjona, had warned his colleagues that “the nation will never be the same” after the decision.

That turned out to be one of the milder statement from the legal profession. Two of Arjona’s fellow dissenting magistrates, Arturo Hoyos and Rogelio Fábrega Zarak, claimed that the ruling allowed the legislature to usurp the courts’ powers. Before an audience at the University of Panama, former high court magistrate Edgardo Molino Mola called the decision “infernal” and “incredible.” Former President Guillermo Endara, a lawyer who’s now seeking his old office again in next May’s elections, vowed to seek a way to reopen the case if he becomes president again. Sossa’s suplente Mercédes Araúz de Grimaldo pointed out that the decision contradicted the precedent of an earlier decision by the same court and said that it called Panama’s democracy deeply into doubt.

At that, Arjona cried foul, arguing that even though he opposed the ruling an Attorney General or his or her alternate owes a duty to the court not to question its decisions and characterized her statement as “inexcusable ignorance.”

However, that didn’t stop the criticism. The nation’s bar association, the Colegio de Abogados, called for a “civic audit” of the case and requested to see the file. More than a dozen business, labor, civic, religious and professional organizations seconded the request.

Then, on October 10, Alberto Cigarruista called RPC-TV’s “Debate Abierto” morning talk show and blew everything sky high. There were bribes paid, the high court judge said, and he has known all along “who had given the money, whom had received it and who was passing it out.” He said that he had told Attorney General Sossa and Archbishop Cedeño all about it long ago. Sossa was unavailable for comment. Cedeño acknowledged such a conversation but said that it was a confidential discussion between a cleric and penitent.

Not anymore! was the nearly universal cry from the legal profession. As with attorney-client privilege, the privilege for communications between priests and confessors is legally broken once one of the parties has revealed any of its substance to the public. There were multiple demands for criminal investigations filed on the basis of Cigarruista’s statements, and the Colegio de Abogados went several steps further than they had a few days earlier.

This time, the bar demanded the resignations of high court magistrates Alberto Cigarruista, Winston Spadafora, their suplentes Virgilio Trujillo and Jacinto Cárdenas --- the latter the author of the controversial decision to quash the corruption investigation --- along with Attorney General José Antonio Sossa. Joining the Colegio Abogados in making this demand were the Catholic Church’s Justice and Peace Commission, the Maestros Independientes teachers’ union, the Catholic archdiocese’s Social Ministry, Transparency International, The Panamanian Constitutional Law Association, the Federation of Professional Associations of Panama, the Foundation for the Development of Citizens’ Liberty, the National Commission for Civic and Moral Values, the Women and Development Forum, the Alternative Road organization, the Popular Legal Aid Center, the Panamanian Center for Social Studies and Action, the Peace Education Institute, the FENASEP government employees’ union, the National Association of Journalists, the Citizens’ Anti-Corruption Movement, the Institute for Political and International Studies, and even the Kiwanis Club of Panama. The demand was made at a press conference that took place in the Catholic Archbishop of Panama’s office.

The next day, Panama City’s representantes spoke up, calling for the reopening of the bribery cases.

Finally, Sossa was moved to respond. Cigarruista lied, the attorney general maintained in a written statement. “He made no declarations to me and gave me no proofs, evidence or information of any kind,” Sossa claimed.

Finally, President Moscoso was moved to respond. “Shut up. Don’t say anything,” she advised the high court judges.

Finally, a legislative committee was moved to respond. The assembly’s Credentials Committee called upon Sossa and Araúz de Grimaldo to appear and answer questions about the affair. Sossa, however, cited separation of powers and said he won’t show up. He probably has the constitution on his side on that point.

Also in this section:
Panama News Briefs
Cascading scandal envelopes all three government branches
Polls indicate political sea change
Torrijos shifts gears
On the campaign trail

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