Catalonia: Corruption Scandals and Separatists. What is known?
Tomorrow, president of Catalonia Carles Puigdemont can declare independence of the region. Russiangate saw into the corruption scandal that has been going along with the independence supporters for the past twelve years.
The President of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, was in the right-wing party Convergencia i Unió (recently was transformed into Partit Democratic of Catalunya, PDCat). The leader of the party since 2012 is Arthur Mas, a Catalan politician, who is the predecessor of the current president of Catalonia. Under Mas’ leadership, Convergence, which previously adhering to regionalism, has become an ardent supporter of splitting from Spain, actively promoting this idea in parliament.
For the past 12 years, the gendarmerie has been investigating into corruption schemes in which this party was involved. For two years (2013-2015), the law enforcement officers conducted searches in the premises of Convergence and related companies. Several founders of the party, its treasurer and businessmen, whose companies performed work for Convergence under contracts, were arrested.
In February 2017, the Spanish security agencies conducted searches at the premises of the Port Authority of Barcelona, in the offices of the Catalan companies Infrastructures.cat and Barcelona Infrastructures. The gendarmes searched for documents that would link the companies’ activities with the party.
In total, the gendarmes arrested 18 businessmen, including the heads of major Catalan companies: TEC4 Ingenieros Consultores, Ferrovial, Barcelona d'Infraestructures SA, Autoridad Portuaria, Infrastructures.cat, the Port Authority of Barcelona.
The businessmen were accused of bribe taking: according to the investigation’s version, the owners of the companies received contracts by paying the party. According to the law, businessmen can financially support the party. But, according to the representative of the Civil Guard, all donations to the party’s accounts coincided with the fact of getting a contract by the enterprise from the party.
For the first time this matter was mentioned back in 2005. At an extraordinary session of the Parliament, President of Catalonia, Pasqual Maragall accused Artur Mas, who at that moment was a secretary of the opposition Convergencia i Unió, that the party receives "kickbacks" for contracting. Maragall sounded the figure of 3% of the cost of an agreement. This same number surfaced later in the gendarmerie’s investigation.
In his speech, Maragall referred to the audit conducted by the Generalitat (Catalan government - Ed.) from 1980 to 2003, and presented in 2004 by former president of Catalonia Jordi Pujol. The audit showed not only the party’s dependence on the material support coming from the mentioned contracts, but also the frequent appointment of friends and relatives to important posts in the government of Catalonia.
The investigation into corruption in the ruling party began the day after Maragall's speech. One of the key figures of the investigation was businessman Jose Maria Penin, a distant relative of Felip Puig, at that time the head of the department of public works, who later became Minister of Internal Affairs of Catalonia.
According to the prosecutor, Penin worked under the relative’s guidance, received a commission from a company that won a tender for the construction of social housing. Penin and the top managers of the company were arrested. The prosecutor paid special attention to the fact that all of them were also members of the party. However, officials involved in the case, including Penin’s relative Felip Puig, escaped responsibility.
According to the prosecutor, part of the funds received was spent on the propaganda of separatism. The other part the party members were moving to the foreign accounts of the participants of the scheme. According to the Spanish press, money was spent on foreign tours, cruises and other entertainment.
Soon, another investigation within the "three-percent" case followed: the next “person of interest” was the company Ferrovial, which, after paying a gavel, received a contract for the construction of a concert hall in Barcelona.
The court began considering the case of Ferrovial in March 2017, after eight years of investigation. The case materials include information on a scheme that includes three parties: the Convergence party, Ferrovial and the managemeent of the Palau de Musico concert hall, who squandered the institution's money. According to the investigation, the company employees donated money to Daniel Osakar, treasurer of the party from 2005 to 2010.
The current investigation is called the operation Petrum. It lasts from 2013: the gendarmes have already conducted several stages of the operation: detentions and searches in the premises of companies associated with the party continue until now.
Artur Mas, the leader of the party, was also suspected of corruption. Despite this, in 2010, Mas became the president of Catalonia, leaving office only after an unsuccessful attempt to hold a referendum in 2014. Searches at Mas' place were also carried out while he was in charge of the region.
Mas always denied any accusations against him and the fellow party members. In 2015, he said: he and his party are targeted by Spain because of Catalonia's attempts to gain independence. According to Mas, the Spanish authorities wanted to discredit the idea of secession and its supporters through the corruption case. If it was so, the Spaniards managed to achieve their goal: in March 2017, the Center for the Study of Public Opinion of Catalonia noted that the percentage of people supporting the idea of separatism has fallen by almost 15% since the scandal.
In order to avoid associations with corruption, in 2016, the party was reformed and renamed: the Democratic Convergence of Catalonia turned into a Catalan European Democratic Party. Mas remained the leader of the party: he resigned as president of Catalonia in January 2016.
In the summer of 2016, the Spaniards decided to try Mas for holding a failed referendum, which took place in the form of a public opinion poll. He was found guilty of disobedience to law enforcement agencies, unlawful execution of state powers, violation of duties and embezzlement, as a result of which he was fined and banned for two years to engage in any political activities.
However, Mas was not very popular even before the charges were brought: one of the members of the Catalan parliament, Inés Arrimadas, said: Mas, who was the right-hand man of President Puyol accused of fraud and whose party treasurer is arrested, cannot be a president.
Whether the investigation into the current president of Catalonia has been carried out, whether his relationship with the participants in the corruption schemes has been established is unknown. Despite his long-standing membership in the party and its successor, there are no such associations around the president. However, judging by statements in the press, both Mas and Puigdemont believe that the Spanish government will stop at nothing to save Catalonia within the country. Puigdemont does not rule out that he may end up in prison, and the corruption case may well be the reason for that.