Constitutional crisis ∞.2: “gratuities, incentives and other personal services”

National Assembly president — until July — Yanibel Ábrego. The matter of gratuities received has yet to be broached with respect to the legislature. Photo by the National Assembly.

Comptroller files a criminal complaint against
the president of the National Assembly

by Eric Jackson

To recap the blow-by-blow until THIS came up:

  • After initial denials, President Varela was forced to admit receiving millions of dollars from the notorious Brazilian-based construction conglomerate Odebrecht. His fall-back position is that it was a campaign contribution rather than a bribe. But foreign campaign contributions are also illegal. In his favor, the president has Martinelli’s electoral prosecutor, Eduardo Peñaloza, who steadfastly refuses to bring cases based on illegal campaign money.
  • The “Governability Pact” among Varela’s Panameñistas, a few minor party deputies, the lone independent in the legislature and dissidents from both the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) and Democratic Change (CD) held for the first years of this presidency but now it’s long gone. Varela’s party has 16 of 71 seats in the legislature and hardly any allies. Thus on his first attempt to fill two vacancies on the high court, the CD and PRD deputies ganged up to reject a woefully unqualified partisan figure and a veteran anti-corruption prosecutor. The process of coming up with new nominees is underway. There will either be a political patronage swap to get the next nominees ratified or the posts may remain vacant until July of 2019, when the next legislature and president take office. The latter case, of course, would raise the stakes in the May 2019 general elections.
  • The National Assembly’s Credentials Committee was reorganized against protests and court challenges by the Panameñistas, who lost a near veto power in that reshuffle. The Supreme Court didn’t want to hear it. The new Credentials Committee obliged the magistrates by throwing out a slew of criminal complaints against several of their number, generally for arcane procedural reasons rather than on the merits of the claims. Come July 2 the legislature makes new committee assignments for the final year of its term, with complaints still lurking that would allow them to impeach President Varela or several members of the high court if they are so inclined. (Getting two-thirds to convict, however, would require rock-solid unity among a CD caucus that’s disintegrating and a PRD caucus that has its divisions but eyes victory next year and is thus much less fragmented.)
  • The many egregious scandals of the Martinelli years linger in many court cases with delays piling upon delays and then defense lawyers moving to dismiss because of the delays they interposed. Some of these interposed delays are by lawyers on behalf of fugitives. The ex-president’s sons and brother-in-law are among those petitioning for habeas corpus even though the courts do not have their bodies at their disposal. Ricardo Martinelli Berrocal himself is fighting extradition on illegal wiretapping charges and has more than a dozen other criminal cases percolating against himself. He fights from a jail cell in the Miami Federal Detention Center, with his lawyers filing ever more specious appeals. The latest bochinche from his camp is that he may waive his objections to extradition, but only if there is a deal with US prosecutors that bars his trial in Panama for anything other than the eavesdropping and theft of the Israeli surveillance equipment last seen in the offices of his supermarket chain. Would the US prosecutors and courts accept such a thing? Would Panamanian authorities – likely including the next high court whenever vacancies get filled – consider themselves bound by that? Maybe if the price is right.
  • Two members of the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) board of directors are, by resolution of Varela’s cabinet, fired. They went on the lam to escape prosecution on criminal charges and missed dozens of meetings, but say that going into hiding while sending in lawyers on habeas corpus motions is their inalienable right, one which trumps their duties to the Panamanian people. The firings and their replacements would need to be approved by the legislature, which is reluctant to act. Perhaps it’s because two other ACP board members, neither of them charged at the moment, are implicated in the Odebrecht scandals. One has his supporters in the National Assembly and the other is a member of that body.
  • Prosecutors and judges have been taking dives or making egregious intentional errors left and right in many of the corruption cases. In some of these they are getting reversed on appeal. In no case is there serious contemplation of any accountability for a prosecutor or judge. In the public perception, everybody will see the charges thrown out in the end and such punishment as there is will be time spent in jail awaiting trial. There is, however, a right to bail in most cases and when authorities rightfully grant bail it is usually seen by many as an act of corruption to allow a guilty person to walk.

NOW COMES the National Assembly’s Planilla 080, the payroll for legislator’s employees. Such parts of it already revealed show a few deputies who are fairly scrupulous, a bunch of others with questionable expenditures but substantially using their share of that payroll to serve their constituents in various legitimate ways, and a lot of stuff that reeks of outright theft. There are the traditional “botellas,” people on the payroll who do not actually work, some of them claiming that they did not even know that they were listed on the payroll. Guess who collects those salaries.

One part has been carefully guarded, though. That’s the secton of Planilla 080 under the heading of “gratuities, incentives and other personal services.” Comptroller General Federico Humbert, more or less politically aligned with Bobby Eisenmann’s strain of libertarian independents, is demanding to see it. Under the law he has every right – in fact a duty – to inspect it. National Assembly president Yanibel Ábrego (CD – Capira) is steadfastly refusing to give Humbert access. She maintains that what Humbert seeks is in the nature of a criminal investigation, over which only the Supreme Court has jurisdiction.

Will independent legislator and presidential candidate Ana Matilde Gómez see her ambitions for higher office evaporate due to her defense of Ábrego’s position? There are likely to be few legislators of any affiliation who side with Humbert with respect to the full details of their $70,000 per month expense budgets.

On May 18 Humbert filed a criminal complaint against Ábrego in the Supreme Court. He alleges “crimes against public administration,” based on the broad constitutional mandate that the Comptroller General has the power and duty to oversee all public expenditures and Ábrego’s refusal to let him do that with respect to the legislature’s spending on “gratuities, incentives and other personal services.”

Will the magistrates want to risk calling off the apparent tacit non-aggression pact with the legislators? If it comes to open warfare they could mess with one another, big time. Stay tuned.

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