Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Minister Roberto Dobles resigned this week amid an unfolding scandal that threatens to reach the desk of President Oscar Arias.
Dobles’ vice minister, Jorge Rodríguez, has been named to replace him.
In November of 2006, just six months after President Arias took office and appointed Dobles, his second cousin, to run the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry (MINAET), a corporation called Agricultura Mecanizada Chapernal S.A. received a valuable mining concession from MINAET, signed by Dobles and Arias.
Jorge Dobles, uncle of the now-former environment minister and cousin to the president, is listed as the corporation’s vice-president. Agricultura Mecanizada Chapernal, which was granted the right to pull sand, rock and gravel from the Aranjuez River, near the central Pacific coast, is wholly owned by another corporation, which is owned by another, which, in turn, is owned by four more, according to a two-inch thick criminal complaint filed with the prosecutor’s office and an investigation by the opposition Citizen Action Party (PAC).
Dobles’ relatives and close associates, including his wife, mother and two brothers, as well as Dobles himself up until Sept 5, 2007, are listed as officers of the corporations linked to the concession, according to documents filed with the criminal complaint. The companies also have ties to corporations formerly or presently owned by President Arias and his brother, Rodrigo Arias, who is the Minister of the Presidency, according to the complaint.
A state prosecutor’s office is now investigating the case.
After Channel 7 TV News broke the story last week, the president’s office released a statement saying Arias accepted Dobles’ resignation, but insisted he broke no laws.
“Don Roberto is aware that his continued presence in this administration could make the progress of important environment, energy and telecommunications initiatives difficult,” Arias said. “Don Roberto is a man of recognized integrity and a faithful servant of the Costa Rican people. I have no doubt that this will not manage to cast a shadow over his honor or his sense of duty.”
Speaking to the Legislative Monday in a three-hour question-and-answer session, Dobles pointed out that the application for the mining concession was first submitted in 2001, and cited an internal MINAET review that concluded Dobles did not intervene to help the mining concession in the application process.
It was, he insisted, through a combination of bureaucracy and coincidence that the concession came to him for his signature five years after it had been submitted, and as minister he was legally required to sign it. Dobles also cited Costa Rica’s mining code, which prohibits the president or ministers from awarding concessions to “relatives in the first degree of blood relation.” Dobles’ only relative on the concession-receiving company – his uncle Jorge Dobles – is separated from him by three degrees, he said. The former minister also said he was unaware of the relation between Agricultura Mecanizada Chapernal and the other corporations run by his more-immediate family.
“Nowhere in the documentation did the relation between various companies and Agricultura Mecanizada appear. I didn’t know about it,” Dobles said. “None of the documents indicated that there could be a conflict.”
Opponents, however, are not convinced, and the sudden departure hasn’t done much to help his case.
“Señor Minister, if you characterize your behavior as fine, then why the resignation?” asked Gretel Ortiz, a PAC legislator. Ortiz, and other opposition legislators, accuse Dobles of breaking Costa Rica’s anticorruption law, passed in 2004, which prohibits public officials from favoring themselves, spouses and family members up to “three degrees of blood relation.”
President Arias also published an executive decree less than a month after taking office saying officials should not make decisions “with the intention of obtaining a financial or material benefit of any type for themselves, their family or their friends.” “Effectively, the president is involved, because he is a relative, directly tied to the representatives of the Chapernal company and the other company that are involved,” Ortiz told The Tico Times. “I am not surprised by the way (Dobles) announced his resignation. This case is much too serious for him to have tried to stay in his position.”
Dobles has long weathered criticism and controversy, and has dismissed calls for his resignation before. The former minister and President Arias are already under investigation for a decree issued in October of 2008 declaring a contentious open-pit gold mine called Las Crucitas “of national convenience.”
The decree allowed the mining company to clear cut nearly 200 hectares of forest, including endangered mountain almond trees, a principal food source for the critically endangered great green macaw (TT, Oct 24, 2008).
“The environmental sector never identified with the minister,” Ortiz said, in what could be considered an understatement. The day his resignation was announced, the Costa Rican Federation for Environmental Conservation (FECON), an umbrella group for dozens of grass-roots environmental organizations, announced it would hold a “celebration” at the doors of MINAET’s building.
Alvaro Ugalde, one of the co-founders of Costa Rica’s famed national parks system and former director for 12 years, sent out an email saying Dobles’ resignation was “the best news I have received since the beginning of this administration.”
The MINAET agency in charge of processing and approving mining concessions, the Geology and Mining Administration, has now come under close scrutiny, and its head officials acknowledged Tuesday that its controls are weak.
The agency depends only on a signed, sworn and notarized statement from a company’s representative to ensure that they are not related through business or blood to government officials. The agency also does no background checks into whether other corporations own the one applying for the concession, and potential conflicts of interest.
José Francisco Castro, the director of the agency, said his office just doesn’t have the resources for that kind of follow-up. He acknowledged that it creates a loophole, but said he had never realized it until The Tico Times asked the question Tuesday.
Castro also acknowledged that the same group of businesses had two other mining concessions in the application process.
The mining department has already taken heat after it was reported recently that it awarded a concession in 2007 to a corporation where Pedro Castro, the Vice-Minister of Public Transport, is a shareholder.
This week, more than five months after a complaint was filed, it requested the Government Attorney’s Office to annul the concession.
Jorge Rodríguez, who has been serving as the Vice-Minister of Environment under Dobles will fill in until a permanent replacement is named. When asked Tuesday by The Tico Times about the possibility of serving as minister permanently, Rodríguez said he hadn’t been consulted and wasn’t interested.
“Thats a lot of problems,” Rodríguez said.
An executive decree signed by President Arias and released Thursday made Rodríguez the new minister as of Tuesday.