Cortés acquittal reversed: Will Martinelli go to a Plan C?

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By way of Twitter, Ricardo Martinelli designated attorney and former labor minister Alma Cortés to run for president in his stead if a criminal conviction prevents him from running himself. But now, on the eve of a national day of mourning when hardly anyone was paying attention, it was announced that a misappropriation of government funds case against Cortés and five co-defendants has been revived on appeal from a trial court ruling. Her exposure to prison might be avoided by payment of a fine, but the possible suspension of political rights could prevent her from running. 

The architect of many legal delays and a notoriously
anti-labor former labor minister may see her streak end

by Eric Jackson

Alma Cortés was a criminal defense lawyer for white collar thugs and upscale racketeers, never a labor lawyer. But she has been for years a member of Ricardo Martinelli’s inner circle, a weaver of countless dodges and delays in the many cases against him.

Her “day job” while Martinelli was president was as Minister of Labor Development. In that post she carried out policies aimed at smashing the labor unions. Since Martinelli left office she has largely dedicated herself to keeping him out of prison. The architect of countless delays, judges are ever more weary of doctors’ notes for herself, fellow members of the Martinelli defense teams, or for the former president or his co-defendants.

Will that streak hold up? So far she put things off for as long as she could. It hasn’t worked to prevent him from being called to trial next year on two sets of charges. One is for taking kickbacks from Odebrecht public works construction projects. The other is for taking different kickbacks from other public contractors and then elaborately laundering the proceeds in order to buy control of the EPASA newspaper chain. (That’s El Panama America, La Critica and Dia a Dia.)

Meanwhile, nine years ago Cortés led a delegation to Geneva for an International Labor Organization gathering. It seemed to be mainly an expensive vacation in Switzerland at government expense, but she says it only looked that way because of some paperwork errors. In any cases the money was paid back, so no harm, no foul, right? 

A pickpocket or a shoplifter doesn’t get that sort of way out, but this is a respected professional here. And last September somehow or another a trial court judge was convinced to accept that and dismiss the charges against Cortés and her co-defendants.

The prosecution appealed and on December 19 it was announced that the Superior Court of Appeals had reverse the lower court decision to throw out the charges. Now SHE is bound over for her own trial next year.

If the book gets thrown, she could be sentenced to two year and eight months in prison. Under the Panamanian criminal justice system, one can generally buy a get out of jail pass for sentences of under four years. It would be peanuts for Martinelli to cover. HOWEVER, with a prison sentence there usually also comes a suspension of political rights that is not avoidable by way of a fine. If it’s 32 months, imposed next year, she would be disqualified from running for president in 2024.

Lots and lots of ifs, but since his two sons pleaded guilty in a US federal district court to laundering some $28 million of their dad’s Odebrecht bribes, Martinelli’s legal fortunes seem to have turned. It’s an embarrassment to judges and prosecutors if they take dives for Team Martinelli, and they risk members of their families being barred from setting foot in the United States for such stuff on top of the disrepute.

But “alleged.” She’s innocent unless proven guilty, and even then a judge or a panel of judges might ignore any and all proofs. We shall see. Maybe, after Plan A and Plan B get thwarted, Plan C for a Martinelli comeback?


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