Privatization bill passes with provision to let criminals participate

On September 12 the bill passed third reading in the National Assembly and was sent to President Cortizo to sign.

Now Odebrecht can get public contracts as if nothing happened

by Eric Jackson

All across Latin America notorious bribe paying companies, the Brazilian Odebrecht combine the most notorious among them, are being barred from bidding on public works projects. But it has not been so in Panama. 

First, while the Panamanian court system was jammed up by Ricky Martinelli, his hoods and their phalanxes of lawyers, Odebrecht had been convicted in multiple countries with judgments based on confessions that mentioned Panamanian connections — but the Varela administration took the position that since these judgments did not come out of Panamanian courts, none of these things ever happened.

Finally prosecutors here closed in and got Odebrecht to plead guilty to bribes and kickbacks in exchange for testimony under the plea bargaining provisions of the Adversarial Penal System. But then the courts, and the Varela administration insisted that the criminal penalties imposed in those plea bargains were the only permissible consequences, such that the company still had a RIGHT to bid for public works contracts.

Now that the government is nearly broke — only half a billion in the budget for public works contracts, an old privatization scheme that was rejected in 2011, Public-Private Associations — APPs, by their Spanish initials — has been revived and passed. Now private companies can get concessions to build and operate public infrastructures, or public services, as profit-making private businesses. Under the new law there are possibilities of behind-the-scenes profit guarantees. Generally the government will hold a stake in any APP venture.

The first version of the proposal had barred the participation of companies convicted of crimes — by Panamanian courts only — such as laundering money for drugs or terrorism or paying bribes to public officials. But in the legislative process the PRD raised the banner of social justice for thug companies. As finally passed, the provision is that so long as a company like Odebrecht — or, theoretically, one owned by al Qaeda — pays off all fines and restitution ordered by Panamanian courts, it can bid for APP concessions.

Lowbrow melodrama was provided by PRD deputy and assembly vice president Zulay Rodríguez, who voted to allow Odebrecht to bid on public works contracts and blamed it on independent legislator Juan Diego Vásquez who, along with the other independents, Cambio Democratico and Panameñista deputies. See, when he was not a legislator and she was, Vásquez supported the idea of plea bargaining to clear court dockets and provide a break to persons and entities that turn state’s evidence. Zulay made no great fuss about that when it passed the legislature. But now the law that Zulay just supported is all Juan Diego’s fault — because she’s Zulay, the post-truth politician.

What’s the legislature’s youngest deputy, who got more votes out of the multi-member San Miguelito circuit than Zulay did, to say about that? “I come here to the Assembly having been a private citizen, to speak with arguments and with evidence. I would never dare to say something if I could not support it. Meanwhile others, and some colleagues, are experts in telling lies,” Vásquez told the Martinelista tabloid La Crítica.

Whereupon PRD deputy from Bocas del Toro Benicio Robinson declared that the National Assembly has a bad image because of Juan Diego Vásquez.

The president is expected to sign the bill into law, but he has a line item veto and might nix the free pass for convicted companies. He also could sign it into law as is and on his shift play the bid rigging games that the convicted companies and corrupt officials did, except this time to steer business away from those parties.


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