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How the ‘reptile fund’ shamed Andalucia
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THE ERE CORRUPTION CASE – INVOLVING THE THEFT OF UP TO A BILLION EUROS OF PUBLIC MONEY – HAS RUMBLED ON SINCE 2011. YET IT IS NOW 2014, ONLY TWO OF THOSE RESPONSIBLE ARE IN PRISON, AND NONE OF THE MONEY HAS YET BEEN PAID BACK. THE OLIVE PRESS TAKES A LOOK AT THE KEY PLAYERS INVOLVED IN THE BIGGEST PUBLIC MONEY CORRUPTION CASE IN SPANISH HISTORY
IN any given weekday for nearly a decade Juan Francisco Trujillo, chauffeur to Andalucia’s former employment minister, would head to a series of Sevilla brothels after work and take a great deal of cocaine.
For most chauffeurs this would be a problem, but not for Trujillo. After all, his boss was with him and in much the same state.
For nine years Trujillo acted as the driver for the Junta de Andalucia’s Employment Minister Francisco Javier Guerrero.
During that time he is believed to have received at least €1.3million illegally, which he spent on property in Sevilla, luxury goods, gifts for friends and family as well as €4,000 on a top-of-the-range grand piano.
But that is not all. In a statement to police, after his arrest two years ago, the chauffeur admitted that he and his ‘friend’ and boss typically spent around €25,000 of public money per month on cocaine and ‘partying’.
According to sources, who have been investigating the so-called ERE case since it emerged in 2011, the pattern saw he and Guerrero – and allegedly other members of the Andalucian government – immersed up to the neck in debauchery many times a week.
This would typically mean leaving the central offices of the Junta in Sevilla for any number of luxury restaurants around the city.
Then after a slap up lunch with vintage wine and brandies, they would retire with cigars to a variety of different ‘Puti clubs’ (or brothels) to score cocaine, and presumably sex.
It was certainly one of the more colourful ways to ‘invest’ the millions of euros that were annually piped in from EU funds in Brussels each year.
This money had been meant to aid the embattled Andalucian economy, stimulate employment and help ailing companies keep afloat.
But tragically to at least some members of the government it simply became a new means to feather their beds.
The man now known as ‘the cocaine chauffer’ is accused of 22 crimes, including forgery, embezzlement, bribery and ‘influence peddling’. His boss, who was awarded bail of just €50,000, is accused of a similar number of crimes.
But Trujillo and Guerrero are just two of the characters in the ERE scandal – the biggest corruption case in Andalucian history. So far over 100 people have been arrested in a case that many believe goes right to the top.
The story begins more than a decade ago, when in 2001 the Junta launched a €721 million fund aimed at supporting struggling firms in Andalucia.
The money was made available to help struggling over-staffed companies make ‘labour re-adjustments’ – ie. redundancies – to improve their competitiveness.
EREs (Expedientes de Regulacion de Empleo) were the payments made to workers being pushed into early retirement or being made redundant.
But, as it has since emerged, laid-off workers and struggling businesses were far from the only beneficiaries from the scheme.
The money (suspected to eventually total up to €1.2 billion) started to be used as a slush fund, appropriately referred to by those involved as the ‘reptile fund’.
This meant that rather than using it genuinely it started to be used to pay ‘commissions’ to friends and, more importantly, pay-off the enemies (reptiles) of the Junta’s key players.
Not properly audited from Brussels, it was cleverly channelled into a range of dark – and largely illegal – payments all ostensibly helping to keep the socialist PSOE bosses firmly in power for nearly three decades.
Some went to fraudulent claims – to people who did not actually work for the companies but were signed up simply to be laid off – while others went to fake companies set up merely to receive funding for fictional staff shake-ups.
This was what the Cocaine Chauffeur’s three companies were set up for and, so far at least, investigators have found 180 other cases of possibly fraudulent ERE lay offs.
Aside from this, Junta members are accused of paying family and friends grossly inflated fees for consultancy and advisory roles.
And even more perversely union bosses brought in to oversee the redundancies also got paid off.
So far prosecutors believe that at least €200 million was taken illegally, while PP party opponents believe the total could end up reaching €1 billion.
As well as implicating the employment minister, Trujillo also described calls from ex President Jose Antonio Grinan encouraging Guerrero “to unclog the delay in subsidy payments.”
Accusations against another former Junta president, Manuel Chaves, followed, while ex minister Magdalena Alvarez was also recently arrested.
Amazingly, all maintain that the payments were completely legal.
It has now emerged that one of the key Svengali figures in the case was Juan Lanzas, the head of the UGT union – supposedly a man of the people.
He is thought to have made €13 million through fixing payments, allowing him to buy 12 houses and support a lifestyle far removed from the workers he is paid to represent.
Charged with five counts of embezzling public funds, breach of trust, forgery, conspiracy and bribery in March, Lanzas was last month released after his family miraculously produced €200,000 in cash to pay for his bail.
But if the story has plenty of villains, at least it also has a hero.
Since 2011 Sevilla Judge Mercedes Alaya has doggedly pursued those responsible, with a quiet determination to see the story reach its conclusion.
Slim, photogenic and a world away from the stereotypical Spanish judge, Alaya, 50, has become the focus of the media’s attention, with pundits and political opponents seemingly obsessed with her physical appearance and choice of clothes.
Writer Antonio Soler described her as ‘judge porcelin’ because of her striking features.
But as the case has developed, and Alaya has brought more and more of those suspected into the focus of the investigation, her image has changed.
‘Judge porcelin’ has become ‘The Iron Lady of Spanish Justice.’
In fact the ERE scandal only emerged because of Alaya’s work during an extortion trial – called ‘the Mercasevilla case.’
In 2009 a Sevilla company – Mercasevilla – was accused of paying bribes in order to secure the planning permission for a new catering school.
Alaya’s pursuing investigation revealed individuals receiving EREs, on behalf of Mercasevilla, despite never having worked for the company.
The judge pushed the investigation and the story has continued to unravel since.
And as the scandal has grown, so has Alaya’s reputation.
Fan clubs have been established and her facebook appreciation page has more than 40,000 fans, though Alaya herself said that the idea that she is the focus of the trial ‘appalls’ her.
She has now dragged seven senior members of the Junta into her Sevilla court, and dared to implicate two former presidents. Many believe that the most recent, Grinan, stepped aside earlier this year precisely because of his close links to the scandal.
The investigation is now thought to be approaching a climax and has expanded beyond Andalucia, to include individuals in Madrid and Barcelona.
But despite being the biggest political corruption case in Spanish history, there are no guarantees that those responsible will ever actually face prison.
If the will exists to pursue the case – which in the context of the scandal is not necessarily a given – then there is no telling where it will end.
As things stand, none of the money has yet been paid back and only two of those responsible – Maria Vaque and Eduardo Pascual – are still behind bars.
Every senior member of the Junta implicated – as well as the cocaine chauffeur – will be free to spend Christmas with their loved ones.
The party may have ended for Trujillo and friends, but their come downs have yet to begin.
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