Nearly three years after a government corruption scandal made headlines around the world, the Chief Prosecutor’s Office has finally filed charges against former President Miguel Ángel Rodríguez (1998-2002) and 10 others.
Prosecutors are charging Rodríguez with aggravated corruption and illicit enrichment for allegedly having received more than $800,000 in handouts from the Frenchtelecommunications firm Alcatel, according to the daily La Nación.
Alcatel obtained a $149 million government contract in 2001 to provide GSM cell phone services to the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE).
Judicial Branch spokesman Fabián Barrantes confirmed that the Chief Prosecutor’s Office has filed charges against Rodríguez, but would not confirm the official charges. He told The Tico Times that the parties affected in the case – ICE, which runs the state telecom monopoly, and the Government Attorney’s Office – have until today to decide whether they want to file a querella, a private prosecution that would be added onto the state’s charges, and/or an acción civil resarcitoria, a civil case seeking monetary damages.
Neither could Barrantes confirm La Nación’s report that Rodríguez is also being charged with accepting $1.4 million in illegal payments from the government of Taiwan.
The daily reported that while Rodríguez was President, he requested a $2 million loan from the Taiwanese Ambassador to Costa Rica. Rodríguez then allegedly received deposits into a Panamanian bank account for some $1.4 million, including two checks that were written by the Taiwanese Ambassador, Wen Mao-Ko. Prosecutors allege the money was not a loan, but a gift, according to La Nación. It is not clear how La Nación obtained this information.
The Prosecutor’s Office has been investigating Rodríguez on suspicion of corruption in the high-profile Alcatel corruption case since 2004, when La Nación broke a series of stories that implicated Rodríguez and two other ex-Presidents in corruption scandals.
Barrantes said that if the parties affected in the ICE-Alcatel case decide to file a civil case along with the government’s criminal case, they have up to two weeks from today in which to do so.
After last year’s elections turned out the highest voter abstention rate in four decades – nearly 35% – the Government Attorney’s Office said it was considering the possibility of filing a claim against Rodríguez and another former President involved in another case for the social and economic impact their corruption scandals have had on Costa Rica politics (March 3, 2006).
The Chief Prosecutor’s Office filed embezzlement and aggravated corruption charges in March against ex-President Rafael Angel Calderón (1990-1994) in an unrelated scandal that also broke in late 2004. Calderón allegedly masterminded the distribution of a $9.2 million “commission” on a $39.5 million purchase by the Social Security System (Caja) of medical equipment from Finnish company Instrumentarium (TT, Oct. 22, 2004). Calderón, after having served a series of preventive detention terms in a state penitentiary and at home for more than a year, has expressed his interest in running for President again in 2010 despite the charges (TT,March 9).
The Government Attorney’s Office is preparing a civil claim for monetary damages in the Rodríguez case, spokeswoman Jeimy Salazar told The Tico Times this week, though she wouldn’t give further details.
ICE didn’t respond to Tico Times inquiries about the case.
Charges are being pressed against Rodríguez and 10 others, but don’t include any formal allegations against former ICE board member José Antonio Lobo, who in 2004 admitted he’d received payments from Alcatel; his wife, U.S. citizen Jean Gallup, allegedly received $2.4 million related to the Alcatel contract. Lobo also testified that ex-President Rodríguez accepted 40% of these kickbacks (TT, Oct. 8, 15, 2004).
Lobo’s lawyer Ewald Acuña confirmed that the Prosecutor’s Office offered Lobo a deal in which it would not press charges in exchange for evidence and information in the case.
Lobo’s finger-pointing prompted Rodríguez, who had just taken office as Central America’s first Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), to step down and return to Costa Rica to face the charges. People across the nation watched live news coverage of his arrest upon arrival to JuanSantamaríaInternationalAirport outside San José (TT, Oct. 22, 2004).
The ex-President, who has always maintained his innocence, welcomed the formal charges after what he said in a statement was “more than 1,000 days of waiting.”
Since the scandal broke, he’s spent nearly a year in preventive detention at the penitentiary La Reforma, a stint in house arrest and has been prohibited from leaving the country.
“I want to thank the thousands of Costa Ricans who united their voices and with signatures presented to Luis Paulino Mora, the President of the Supreme Court, a document requesting prompt and complete justice,” Rodríguez said in the statement, adding that the petition was submitted last week.
Rodríguez called his nearly three-year stint in legal limbo “unjustified,” and added that the Chief Prosecutor’s Office extended his preventive detention sentence three times as prosecutors investigated his case, and that the Office broke several dates they had given as deadlines to present formal charges.
Barrantes told The Tico Times that the statute of limitations on the case was legally extended since the case required a particularly complex investigative process.
Rodríguez’s lawyer, Rafael Gairaud, told the daily La Nación this week that the Prosecutor’s Office “was obligated” to present charges due to internal and external pressures.
He said it was “scandalous” that Rodríguez will be charged and not Lobo, adding this “calls into question the objectivity, impartiality and integrity of the Prosecutor’s Office.”
Rodríguez is one of the three ex- Presidents who were implicated in the 2004 corruption scandals.
Former president José María Figueres (1994-1998) was implicated in the Alcatel scandal in a report published by the daily La Nación in October 2004 that revealed Figueres received nearly $1 million from the company.
Figueres confirmed that he received the payment, but said it was in exchange for his consulting services in connection with Alcatel’s bid for the ICE contract. He soon thereafter resigned from his post as president of the Switzerland-based World Economic Forum and hasn’t returned to Costa Rica since, though legislators wanted him to appear for questioning (TT, Oct. 29, Nov. 5 2004). The Tico Times covered a climate change conference that a bearded Figueres led earlier this year in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (TT, Feb. 2).
It is not clear whether the Prosecutor’s Office is investigating Figueres, but it has declined to issue an international arrest warrant.
This week’s charges against Rodríguez come after a former executive for the French telecommunications company Alcatel confessed last month in U.S. federal court to having dished out $2.5 million in bribes to high-level Costa Rican officials to obtain a government contract.
Former Alcatel officials are accused of shelling out a total of $9.6 million in bribes to Costa Ricans to obtain the $149 million contract ICE awarded the company in 2001 for 400,000 GSM cell phone lines.
Alcatel executive Christian Sapsizian admitted conspiring with Alcatel’s Costa Rica manager to distribute the gifts to influential Costa Rican officials. He also said the ICE boardmember who received the money was an advisor to a “senior government official,” with whom the payments were shared (TT, June 15).
Earlier this year, former ICE board member Hernán Bravo pleaded guilty to accepting more than $1 million in the case in exchange for a lower sentence. That same month, ICE ended its contract with Alcatel two years early, a decision in which the corruption scandal “weighed heavily,” according to ICE president Pedro Pablo Quirós (TT, Feb. 9).
Now called Alcatel-Lucent, the French company is traded on the New York Stock Exchange.