Early in the five-year cycle for this
by Eric Jackson
A person who held public office, and who is the subject of multiple criminal proceedings in multiple countries related to that tenure in office? In the banking industry they call such a person a “PEP” — politically exposed person — of the most dangerous sort. Very few banks would open an account for such a person, for fear of the bank itself becoming enmeshed in a money laundering case.
Former president Ricardo Martinelli, the subject of criminal proceedings in Panama, under criminal investigation in Spain and alluded to in indictments and official press releases in criminal matters in the United States, is a classic PEP. He recently sold a house in Mami-area city of Coral Gables, which, like an airplane of his, may have been at risk of seizure by the US government. That sale price was reported in Florida documents as $8.2 million. Some $6.7 million of the apparent proceeds from that sale came to Panama by way of an account opened this past December by Mr. Martinelli in a state-owned bank, the Caja de Ahorros. Once in that Panamanian public institution, the funds were transferred to four foundations created by lawyers or former public officials close to Martinelli, which opened their Caja de Ahorros accounts this past January. Figures listed as officers or attorneys for these four foundations have been mentioned in several countries’ criminal investigations of Odebreacht graft scandals. Some $30,000 in change from the transfer from Miami to the Caja de Ahorros, La Prensa reported, went into a credit or debit card account in Ricardo Martinelli’s name.
Also reporting aspects of this story was the newer online medium, FOCO Panama.
On the face of it, the whole transaction looks like it may have been a transfer of assets aimed at preventing their seizure by US authorities. Or perhaps, by a ragtag online journalist whose electronic communications were intercepted by Ricardo Martinelli and might be interested in suing about it in the United States.
In any case, the opening of accounts and cash transfers raised eyebrows in the banking community here and led to questions about the Caja de Ahorros general manager, Andrés Farrugia. The people who run the Caja de Ahorros are political appointees. Farrugia is one of Nito Cortizo’s guys. It’s hard to imagine that he did not personally authorize the opening of Martinelli’s and his foundations’ accounts, and La Prensa refers to two undisclosed Caja de Ahorros compliance officer sources and reports that this is exactly what happened. The bank itself declined to comment, citing Panama’s banking secrecy laws.
A Panamanian state-owned bank involved in what might be called fraudulent transfers that prejudice the forfeiture claims of the United States government? The Caja de Ahorros could be seriously damaged, even shut down, over such a thing. It could get its corresponding bank privileges in the Unites States cancelled. It could get put on the Clinton List, such that any US institution or individual doing business with it would be subject to US criminal penalties and forfeitures.
It took a couple of weeks, but Ferrugia has tendered his resignation. It’s not immediately clear whether President Cortizo or the Caja de Ahorroas board will accept it. He’s also filing criminal charges and civil lawsuits against La Prensa and FOCO, alleging that their reports and especially their sarcastic references in La Prensa’s Tal Cual gossip column and FOCO’s Twitter postings were malicious.
So, the usual? A criminal defamation charge that could carry a four-year prison term that may be avoided by payment of a dollar a day fine? Unclear. The specific criminal charge that Ferrugia mentioned in the press conference announcing that he had tendered his resignation and is taking legal action was not about defamation, but about violating banking secrecy. But it would be the banking secrets of one Ricardo Martinelli Berrocal and several of his associates — would Ferrugia have standing to bring a charge about the violation of somebody else’s privacy?
The civil case against La Prensa and Foco? The pleadings in that could make some interesting reading for the sort of nerd — or press freedom defender — who gets into that sort of thing.
MEANWHILE, and perhaps totally unrelated, on the same day as Ferrugia’s press conference La Estrella ran an interview with University of Panama journalism professor Gricelda Melo, a veteran radio and television journalist and government publicist. She’s running in the upcoming elections for officers of the Colegio Nacional de Periodismo (CONAPE, National Journalism Council). She says she wants to “professionalize journalism to define who the journalists are.” She mentions a legal framework, and vows to push for changes, to “make journalism more attractive, but above all respectable. No just anyone can be a journalist here.”
Oh, no — AGAIN? It’s a very PRD idea to license journalists. Tony Noriega did that. After it fell into disuse with the US invasion, the dictatorship’s licensing law was unsuccessfully invoked by the next PRD administration, that of Ernesto Pérez Balladares, especially for this reporter.* In every legislature some deputy, usually from the PRD caucus, will bring up the idea of a new journalist licensing law. CONAPE’s traditional position is that only graduates of the University of Panama’s school of social communications should be allowed to be journalists here.
* Editor’s note: On billboards and public documents of all sorts, former President Ernesto Pérez Balladares would affect the title “Dr.” The thing is, he has no doctoral degree in any subject. So this reporter — a JD both as one with a doctorate in law and a juvenile delinquent record — asked about that. Soon there was a call to come down to the Ministry of Government and Justice to prove that I was qualified to be a journalist under the dictatorship’s dead letter licensing law. The usual qualification was a degree from the University of Panama’s school of social communications. But because all media would have been forced to close in Noriega times had THAT been strictly enforced, the law had a grandfather clause that allowed people who had practiced journalism for 10 years to get a license. I went rummaging through now-lost old archives and retrieved old newspapers clippings with my byline going back several decades to show them. They gave me a piece of paper saying I was licensed as a journalist. I posted it on my toilet.
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