Editorial, “Irregular” justice: reality and vocabulary

From a prosecutor’s slide show about the Blue Apple scam. The company did “factoring” for other companies that got public works construction contracts from the Martinelli administration. We can reasonably say, from guilty pleas and civil settlements already on record, that it was a scheme to whitewash wholesale corruption. As to the 51 defendants with an already delayed pretrial hearing scheduled for this week, leave them their presumption of innocence. But after 11 years, let’s treat more delays as a distinct offense.

Justice delayed…

NOW, some 14 years after that particular looting binge got underway, a San Miguelito PRD entourage has had its day in court. The 30 activists who stole more than $1.5 million from the public school via the “Equity and Quality in Education Fund” got sentences ranging from four to five years apiece.

That was just one of the Martín Torrijos era thefts from Panamanian education. Perhaps the most grotesque started as a program to remove deadly carcinogenic asbestos insulation from some of the older schools, then got switched to remove fiberglass – an irritant that’s not the best stuff to use, but nothing like the asbestos threat. A vast and dishonest public relations campaign was undertaken to confuse a public that’s largely uneducated about such distinctions. Then it turned out that politically connected contractors were paid inflated sums to remove insulation from schools that didn’t have any in the first place. At least there were something like real-time consequences for some of the people involved in that latter scam.

This week, there is an already once-delayed preliminary hearing for theft, bribery, forgery of public documents and money laundering for 51 people and many of the construction companies that got government contracts in the Blue Apple Services scheme. That bid-rigging swindle, in which tens of millions of dollars were extracted from public coffers, got underway in 2010. These were, with exceptions like Costa Rica’s MECO, the smaller-time Panamanian offenders. The big international specialists in such operations, Odebrecht and FCC, dominated the field and those cases have in many cases not come to their conclusions.

Will somebody come in with a doctor’s note to put off the August 5 Blue Apple hearing again? Good bet.

The epidemic and its economic fallout mean that the old games are now more unaffordable than ever. However, public contracting under the Cortizo adminstration shows us a political caste and its business backers unwilling to change.

There are some structural and cultural changes that need to happen here. One is a change in the ways that courts and the media that cover the legal system operate and talk.

Is a medium “safe” from being slapped with bogus criminal defamation charges by talking about “irregularities” instead of “crimes?” Is it ethical for prosecutors to talk in such euphemisms?

Consider the harmful spectacle of rich criminals with phalanxes of lawyers getting endless delays, and getting favorable rulings based on stretched interpretations of procedural rules. Is this any way to keep a population at large that’s suffering in these hard times from engaging in a bit of petty theft themselves?

In many instances the public vocabulary and modes of thinking need to play down the procedural and concentrate on the substantive. It’s certainly the case in all the discourse over constitutional reform.

One structural bottom line? Panama needs a public corps of engineers, to take public works construction out of the realm of corporate bidding, political favoritism and international intrigue. We need to put the country in a position to kick out the notorious rogue corporations by making them ever more dispensable. Even if to address the problem in this way seems terribly “irregular” under the light of the neoliberal economic dogma that has prevailed for decades.

Another structural bottom line? There need to be penalties for parties, attorneys and public officials who unduly delay the Panamanian legal system. In public discourse, due scorn needs to be heaped on those who delay cases for years and then plead that statutes of limitations have run their courses.



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Hannah Arendt     


Bear in mind…


Nothing is worth more than laughter. It is strength to laugh and to abandon oneself, to be light.

Frida Kahlo


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William Makepeace Thackeray


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Bruce Lee


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