Three years after a wave of corruption scandals ravaged the country, one legislator hopes to rekindle discussion that has taken a back seat to the U.S. free-trade pact debate but which many agree is crucial for the future of Costa Rica’s democracy.
“Unless corruption is drastically reduced, there’s little hope that the country will achieve sustainable political, economic and social development,” said National Liberation Party (PLN) legislator Alexander Mora.
By presenting a reform to the three-year-old Law against Illicit Enrichment and Corruption – proposed changes developed by the German political think-tank Konrad Adenauer Foundation – legislator Mora opened a Pandora’s box of criticism of the 2004 law.
Konrad Adenauer representative Reinhard Willig said in a statement introducing the reform Aug. 23 that the political pressure under which the corruption law was passed “left some fissures from a technical standpoint.”
The assembly approved the anti-Corruption Law, which had been in debate for five years, in October 2004, just days after national press uncovered corruption scandals involving two former Presidents. The law fulfilled commitments the country assumed in April 1997 when it ratified the Inter-American Convention against Corruption. Illicit enrichment, passing of legislation for self-benefit, concealment of goods and trafficking of influences were among the new crimes identified by the law.
The measure also requires public officials to declare their personal assets. At the time, critics said the law could unduly punish politicians who unwittingly benefit from blood relations in a small country (TT, Sept. 24, 2004). Three years later, Gilberth Calderón, director of the Public Ethics Branch of the Government Attorney’s Office, said the corruption law needs to be clearer.
“Our experience with the law has been very scarce,” he said, adding that the country’s Criminal Code includes clearer regulations for combating corruption. He said he knows of no sentence in which the country’s courts have applied the law. No one in the Aug. 23 corruption forum where he was speaking contested his statement.
The reform calls for mostly technical changes to the law – like setting limits on how long the Chief Prosecutor’s Office can investigate corruption complaints, clarifying that the corruption law also applies to Costa Rican officials working outside of the country and more clearly defining to which public officials the law applies.
Mora recently presented the reform in the Assembly’s Hall of the Ex-Presidents, with the portraits of three former Costa Rican Presidents who have been wrapped up in the biggest corruption scandal in the country’s recent history dangling behind him.
In 2004, several presidential corruption scandals exploded.After years of investigation, prosecutors are charging ex-President Miguel Angel Rodríguez (1998-2002) with aggravated corruption and illicit enrichment for allegedly having received more than $800,000 in handouts in connection with a Costa Rican government contract obtained by the French telecommunications firm Alcatel (TT,Aug. 3).
Alcatel obtained a $149 million contract in 2001 to provide GSM cell phone services to the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE).
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, who resides abroad and hasn’t returned to the country since the scandal broke, confirmed that he received the payment, but said it was in exchange for his consulting services for Alcatel’s bid for the ICE contract (TT, Oct. 29, 2004).
The Chief Prosecutor’s Office also filed embezzlement and aggravated corruption charges in March against ex-President Rafael Angel Calderón Jr. (1990-1994) in a separate but perhaps related 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).
None of the ex-Presidents have been convicted, and all maintain their innocence.
La Nación reporter Mauricio Herrera, who was involved in uncovering the scandals, explained how the Alcatel and Caja cases may overlap, with a handful of actors implicated in both.
“It was like digging up the bones of a medium-sized dinosaur, then discovering that they were of a colossal dinosaur,” he said of the newspaper’s discovery that the corruption cases may be linked. Showing how family, political and labor ties were all key in the corruption scandals, he called the problem “not incidental, but systemic.”
The presidential scandals are a prime example of how the corruption law has been less useful than old-fashioned investigative journalism, according to one analyst.
“None of the corruption scandals have been detected by institutions created to detect corruption. It’s been all media,” said Miguel Gutiérrez, director of the State of the Nation report, an annual analysis of public issues in Costa Rica.
Chief Prosecutor Francisco Dall’Anese said that the Alcatel and Caja scandals “saturated” the country’s Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ).
“There has to be resources to carry this out.Why can’t we tap phones in corruption cases?” he asked. “We have a disorganized state with organized crime.”
Government Attorney’s Office Ethics Branch director Gilberth Calderón was among the most outspoken critics of Costa Rica’s corruption laws at the forum. The Ethics Branch, whose mission is to weed out government corruption, was also founded in 2004. Calderón’s office has processed nearly 200 corruption complaints since its founding.
Though the investigative office can’t process criminal cases, it sends recommendations to authorities or administrators ordering punishments for corruption. The branch has passed 14 such recommendations on to authorities or administrators, and most cases were punished in some way, Calderón said.
The cases included a recommendation to Libertarian Movement legislator Evita Arguedas to step down from the assembly’s telecommunications reform discussion because of a potential conflict of interest.
After the recommendation, Arguedas stepped down from the special commission on telecom reform (TT, March 16).