When a gold mining concession once granted to Industrias Infinito was revoked by a court order on Nov. 24 last year, it didn’t take an expert to predict that company lawyers would appeal.
But what few expected was that Attorney General Ana Lorena Brenes, whose job it is to protect the government’s broad-ranging legal interests, would also challenge the ruling, a controversial move that critics say seems to favor a private company’s interests over the public’s.
As attorney general, Brenes’ responsibilities include defending the interests of the state. So her decision to appeal the November ruling by the Administrative Appeals Court, the last legal forum for the company, has shocked several opposition congressmen.
Brenes’ actions have provoked a flurry of questions, particularly from members of the Legislative Assembly’s Environment Commission, who subpoenaed her twice.
During the first hearing on Jan 27, Brenes provided lawmakers a copy of the appeal she filed against the sentence that struck down the company’s mining contract, and said she had acted according to the law.
“We should always file an appeal whenever the government is the recipient of an unfavorable verdict. This is the rule, not the exception,” Brenes testified. “We have no interest in favoring [Industrias Infinito].”
One week later, on Feb. 3, Brenes admitted that former President Oscar Arias and his brother Rodrigo Arias called her to ask if, as attorney general, she would appeal the sentence.
Industrias Infinito is the Costa Rican subsidiary of Infinito Gold, and the local operator of the Crucitas gold mining project in northern Costa Rica, near the Nicaraguan border (TT, Jan. 21, Nov. 24, 2010).
In late January, Citizens Action Party lawmaker Claudio Monge revealed a familial link between the government’s environment attorney, Mauricio Castro Lizano and former Industrias Infinito contractor Luis Lizano. Luis Lizano is Mauricio Castro’s uncle.
The Tico Times tried to contact both Brenes and Castro, but they did not respond to phone messages by press time.
“The only thing that comes to my mind is that these people are not really interested in the public’s welfare. They’re more interested in paying back political favors,” said Monge, who has promised to investigate allegations of influence peddling in the case.
Last year, Castro participated in a trial that ultimately resulted in the cancellation of all mining permits that Industrias Infinito had obtained during the administration of former President Oscar Arias. Castro defended the Arias administration’s actions.
Castro’s actions raised suspicion among the judges who sit on the Administrative Appeals Court and ruled against the mining contracts.
“It was noticeable that Castro coordinated with [Industrias Infinito] regarding several actions, including [legal] objections, by exchanging papers, verbal communication and even using signs. It seemed that [Castro] was not just working for the technical defense of the public interest, but also the defense of the private interests of the company,” judges stated in their ruling, copies of which have since been publicly released.
This week, Luis Lizano denied that a conflict of interest could have motivated his nephew, Mauricio Castro, to act as an ally in the defense of Industrias Infinito, and he called his nephew’s career “spotless.”
“We worked with [Industrias Infinito] about two years ago. If my nephew happened to be the government’s environmental attorney, that’s just a coincidence,” Luis Lizano told The Tico Times. “My company [Grupo 8] has nothing to do with him. I haven’t seen Mauricio [Castro] for more than three years,” he said.
But congressional opposition doesn’t appear to be backing down. “We’ll take this as far possible,” Monge told The Tico Times on Jan. 31. “I want Brenes and Castro ousted. It is dangerous when judicial affairs are influenced by political deeds. What is happening is the perfect example of the usual way of doing things in previous government administrations,” the lawmaker said.
According to Costa Rican law, legislators can remove Brenes and Castro if 29 lawmakers vote in favor, an unlikely outcome given that the ruling National Liberation Party holds a majority in the assembly.
A final ruling on the appeal is pending.
The Rise and Fall of Costa Rica’s Most Controversial Mining Project
Industrias Infinito is based in Cutris de San Carlos, in the Northern Zone province of Alajuela. The company planned to extract 700,000 ounces of gold during a 10-year period, the equivalent of $800 million.
However, the company has faced intense opposition from environmental groups and political opposition leaders.
Oct. 13, 2008: Former President Oscar Arias declares by decree that the gold mining project is of “public interest.” The company is allowed to cut down yellow almond trees.
Oct. 19, 2008: A group of citizens files a constitutional lawsuit in the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) to stop the project.
September-November 2009: Sala IV judges examine evidence, visit San Carlos and talk to several experts before issuing a ruling.
Apr. 17, 2010: Sala IV rules Industrias Infinito may proceed with the gold-mining project. Environmental groups continue organizing efforts to stop the project, and five hours later, an administrative court freezes the project again.
Nov. 24, 2010: The Administrative Appeals Court annuls Arias’ presidential decree and revokes permission that Industrias Infinito had been granted, citing irregularities. The court also recommends the Public Prosecutor’s Office investigate Arias.
Jan. 18: Mauricio Castro Lizano, the government’s environmental attorney, appeals the ruling.
Jan. 27: The government’s top legal defender, Ana Lorena Brenes, is subpoenaed by members of congress to explain why the agency under her management acted in the interest of Industrias Infinito. She is subpoenaed again to answer follow-up questions.
Feb. 3: Attorney General Brenes admits having received a call from former President Oscar Arias regarding the next steps to be taken in the case.
Source: The Tico Times