Behind the Scenes of a Corruption Scandal
They say truth is stranger than fiction, and a newly published book by ex-President Miguel Angel Rodríguez – an account of his arrest and imprisonment because of corruption allegations, and an indictment of the legal system he says has violated his human rights – proves the point.
It’s a story you couldn’t make up. Granted, Rodríguez’s status as a former President (1998-2002) accused of accepting kickbacks doesn’t make him unique, even within Costa Rica: two other fellow Presidents, Rafael Angel Calderón (1990-1994) and José María Figueres (1994-1998), have also been accused of illegally accepting funds. But on Oct. 15, 2004, Rodríguez was not only a former head of state, but also the first Central American ever elected as the Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), so his arrest and subsequent yearlong preventive detention in two residences and a state penitentiary stood out on the front pages of the country’s papers.
According to Rodríguez, that’s part of the problem. In “Di la Cara: Una Batalla por el Estado de Derecho” (“I Showed My Face: A Battle for the State of Law”), released this past weekend, the lawyer and economist argues that coverage by some of Costa Rica’s leading news outlets has influenced the Judicial Branch, which in turn, according to the ex-President, has violated his rights by treating him as though he has already been declared guilty.
He has now been under investigation by the Prosecutor’s Office for nearly two years without any charges filed; though he was released from jail in March 2005 and from house arrest last October, he is not allowed to leave the country and must sign in every 15 days.
Rodríguez sat down with The Tico Times this week for the first time since he left house arrest. The interview took place at the home of family friend and former Legislative Assembly president Rina Contreras, because Rodríguez, 66, and his wife, Lorena Clare, are in the midst of a move. Their legal expenses and his inability to work during his yearlong detention, he said, have left them unable to afford the expense of the Escazú home where he served most of his house arrest. They have chosen a smaller apartment, also in the southwestern San José suburb.
Rodríguez is now teaching a course in foreign trade at the University of Costa Rica (UCR) across town and continuing to work on his defense. As part of his conditional freedom, he is not allowed to discuss the content of his case or speak with other suspects. His book deals with how he has been treated, not the veracity of the claims by former friend José Antonio Lobo that Rodríguez accepted 60% of a $2.4 million “prize” related to a Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) contract with international telecom firm Alcatel in 2001 (TT, Oct. 8, 2004).
Why a book?
“First: a person needs to keep busy,” Rodríguez said, adding that he decided to write “Di la Cara” a few months after returning to house arrest following four months in the penitentiary La Reforma last year. After the initial rush to see family, use the Internet and otherwise enjoy the comforts of home wound down, he needed something else to occupy his time.
The book, printed in Bogotá by Editorial Planeta Colombiana and available at bookstores throughout Costa Rica for ¢9,800 (approximately $19), is part legal analysis and part memoir, a combination that has explanations of Costa Rican and international law side by side with details such as the last movie Rodríguez saw before his arrest (“Napoleon Dynamite,” which he said he disliked but his grandkids love); his club soccer affiliation (Saprissa, though his fellow La Reforma inmate, Calderón, is a fan of rival team La Liga Alajuelense); and descriptions of how his family and religious faith helped him stay positive. It also, rather pointedly, mentions that his hotel room in Puerto Rico – where, on an OAS visit, he decided to resign as Secretary General to return to Costa Rica to face the accusations against him – had a sixth-floor balcony, giving him “the egotistical temptation to go far away.”
Rodríguez, the author of 12 other books on topics including law and politics, said this mix is the result of a conscious decision to include both aspects of his story.
“One is the personal line: what happens to you when you go from the highs to the lows in a very short period of time, when you lose your prestige, your position, your power, your wealth,” he said. “The other is the history of the judicial process, what’s happening with the rule of law, with due process, with human rights.”
The book is laced with sometimes surprisingly specific details, such as the number of steps – 23 – Rodríguez descended from the airplane door to the tarmac, in handcuffs, upon his return to Costa Rica from Washington, D.C. Oct. 15. He said he did keep some notes about his feelings throughout the experience, but most of the details are simply burned on his brain.
According to “Di la Cara,” Rodríguez and Calderón, who is accused of masterminding the distribution of $9.2 million in kickbacks related to a Social Security System (Caja) medical-equipment purchase in 2001, became increasingly close during their time in neighboring cells at La Reforma; “at 64 years old, I was discovering what it meant to have a roommate,” he writes. (Both the Caja and ICE scandals came to public attention through investigative press reports by the daily La Nación and Channel 7 TV News in mid-2004, and both ex-Presidents were detained, moved to La Reforma, allowed to return to house arrest, and granted conditional release at approximately the same time.)
Asked whether he’s surprised that Calderón has expressed interest in returning to politics and even running for President again (see sidebar), Rodríguez said only that as different people, they’ve had different responses to the cases against them. “Di la Cara” makes it clear that “the roads of politics are closed” to Rodríguez until his case is resolved.
Calderón, who attended Rodríguez’s book presentation Tuesday at the Costa Rican Lawyers’ Association, wasn’t the only fellow prisoner to appear in the account.
Rodríguez also got to know an inmate nicknamed “Salacuarta” because of the huge number of suits he filed before the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV). Salacuarta eventually filed suit against Rodríguez and Calderón themselves, claiming they used the public phone in that area of the prison too much.
On the legal side, Rodríguez criticizes apparent leaks that allowed some media to receive legal documents related to the investigation within hours, his arrest and detention despite his voluntary return to Costa Rica – a complaint for which currrent Public Security Minister Fernando Berrocal expressed support this week – and the overall empowerment of the Prosecutor’s Office as a result of a judicial reform Rodríguez himself, then a legislator, supported in the 1990s.
“That’s the worst change this country has made in many years,” he said. According to Rodríguez, today’s legislators should take action to propose reforms that would protect defendants’ rights by limiting the use of preventive prison and plea bargaining. He also said the release of court documents must be controlled.
“It’s not possible to have a fair trial when the Prosecutor’s Office allows proof…to become public before the trial,” he said.
In June 2005, Rodríguez told The Tico Times he was confident he would receive a fair trial. Now, he said he’s less sure because of the increasing length of the investigation.
Still, despite the suit and tie, his demeanor is noticeably more relaxed than on that previous occasion as he answers questions and poses for photos with his book.
Ushering his guests out of the borrowed space, he takes a philosophical stance: “The future’s not ours to know.What will be will be.”
What About the Other Ex-Presidents?
Ex-President Miguel Angel Rodríguez (1998-2002) isn’t the only former head of state awaiting trial. The investigation of Rafael Angel Calderón (1990-1994) also remains ongoing.
According to Judicial Branch spokesman Fabián Barrantes, a judge has classified both investigations as “tramitación compleja” because of their complex nature. This decision, handed down in February, gives the Prosecutor’s Office as long as is necessary, within a “reasonable time frame,” to complete the investigation, Barrantes said.
“There’s a lot left” to investigate, he said. Unlike Rodríguez, Calderón has made clear his interest in returning to politics despite the accusations against him. He dined with legislators from his Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC) shortly after his release from house arrest in late 2005, played an active role in the party’s National Assembly earlier this year, and has told the press he won’t discard the idea of running for President in 2010.
No investigation was ever opened against ex-President José María Figueres (1994-1998), accused of receiving more than $900,000 in consulting fees from international telecom firm Alcatel, the same company whose contract with the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) is part of the scandal surrounding Rodríguez. In 2004, Figueres admitted to receiving the payments and resigned as head of the World Economic Forum in Geneva, Switzerland, because the payments violated the forum’s regulations.
However, he maintains the payments are legitimate. He promised on more than one occasion to return to Costa Rica and testify before the Legislative Assembly commission investigating the matter, but never did so. Legislators’ requests that the Prosecutor’s Office issue an international capture order for Figueres, as it did for Rodríguez, were denied.
Figueres spoke Sept. 15 at Thunderbird global business school in Glendale, Arizona, as part of a speaker series, according to www.thunderbird.edu.
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