Varela brothers’ bag man turns state’s evidence

A slate arranged at the US ambassador’s residence, two administrations beholden to a third power.

Lasso deals and squeals with prosecutors, Varela brothers likely to be charged

by Eric Jackson

Dr. Jaime Lasso, once a Panamanian diplomat in Asia but for a long time a principal donations bundler for the Panameñista Party, has struck a plea bargain with anti-corruption prosecutor Zuleyka Moore. He has admitted to money laundering, and is testifying about how money from the thug Brazilian construction conglomerate, Odebrecht, was poured through himself and chains of companies into the party’s 2009 and 2014 campaigns.

The most spectacular testimony to come to light so far is that in the run-up to the 2014 election Odebrecht covered the costs of the Varela campaign’s banners and regalia, and that both former president Juan Carlos Varela and his legislator brother José Luis Varela were aware of this.

According to Lasso, back at the beginning of 2009, when the PRD’s Martín Torrijos held the presidency and Odebrecht — with its its reputation for political payoffs — had been doing public works contracts with Panamanian public entities for going on three years, he approached the Brazilian company. Through companies owned by Lasso or members of his family, the Odebrecht-owned Meinl Bank and a string of shell companies and foundations in the United States, Antigua and Barbuda, Belize, the British Virgin Islands, the Bahamas and Panama, with people remotely directing the transactions from South Korea, Spain, Brazil and Panama, some $6.7 million was transferred over the years. The ultimate checks were made out personally to Juan Carlos Varela.

At the start of the process Lasso was running a private in vitro fertilization clinic and was a prominent Panameñista activist. He went on to be a Panamanian diplomat in Asia and the Varela team’s top bundler for the 2009 and 2014 elections.  Odebrecht, in that interim, reorganized its international bribery operations into a “Structured Operations Division” which, through the head of Odebecht’s Panamanian subsidiary, André Rabello, turned the isthmus into a hub for illicit financial transactions and place where potentially embarrassing records were sent to disappear.

Juan Carlos Varela is eligible to become a member of the Central American Parliament, which would give him immunity from any proceedings and if that protection were lifted, would shift the entire case to the Supreme Court. As a sitting legislator José Luis Varela has that immunity, which he could voluntarily renounce but failing that any further investigation or proceedings against him would have to be referred to the Supreme Court.

Lasso’s testimony, and that of Rabello in this and other cases, plus documentary evidence from a variety of sources make it likely that both Varelas will be named as criminal defendants.

Will the Odebrecht investigation get back to the early days, under a PRD administration? The problem there is that statutes of limitations bar most inquiries or prosecutions of that, and a highly compromised PRD-dominated National Assembly is unlikely to call for any special investigations.

And today’s Panameñista Party? It’s led by former Panama City mayor José Isabel Blandón, whose own reputation as mayor was damaged by unpopular and expensive public works projects, some involving Odebrecht. It has not been alleged that Blandón received any payoffs from the Brazilian company. And the former mayor, who distanced his 2019 presidential bid from the party, maintains that Odebrecht bribed Juan Carlos Varela personally, not the Panameñista Party.


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