Forty members of the Spanish ruling party and a number of prominent businessmen will stand trial in the country’s biggest political corruption scandal since the end of the Franco regime.
Judge Pablo Ruz, of the National Court in Madrid, yesterday ordered a former health minister and three former treasurers of the centre-right Popular party to stand trial, along with 36 others, on 12 charges, including bribery, cash-for-favours in office, and embezzling €449 million of taxpayers’ money.
The case could cost Mariano Rajoy, the prime minister, the general election in November. He has not been charged in what is being called the Gurtel affair, but the scandal has badly tarnished the party he leads.
Luís Bárcenas, one of the three former party treasurers caught up in the case, has claimed that Mr Rajoy was among scores of party leaders who received tens of thousands of euros from a secret slush fund that was in operation during the government of José María Aznar. The money was allegedly paid by construction bosses to politicians in return for lucrative government building contracts.
The trial, which is expected to take place next year, could not have come at a worse time for Mr Rajoy. His party is two points behind in the opinion polls, which are led by a nascent party that is hoping to win the November elections on an anti-corruption ticket.
Mr Bárcenas claimed he compiled ledgers that listed payments, including one of €42,000 concealed in a cigar box given to Mr Rajoy in 1997 when he was the civil service minister.
After he was indicted in the Gurtel case, Mr Bárcenas said he had received a number of text messages from the prime minister which, he claimed, indicated his support. One, dated January 18, 2013, allegedly read: “Luis. I understand. Be strong. I’ll call you tomorrow. Regards.”
Mr Rajoy has resisted demands for his resignation, has cut links with Mr Bárcenas and insisted that claims of slush fund payments are false.
“His accusations are false and his half-truths are false,” Mr Rajoy told the Spanish parliament. An investigation has begun into the slush fund claims, but Mr Rajoy has not been implicated.
The decision of Judge Ruz to send 40 defendants for trial comes as a poll for the state-run Centre for Sociological Investigations found that corruption was the second-biggest concern for Spanish voters after unemployment, which stands at 23 per cent.
It has helped to spark huge support for Podemos, the left-wing, anti-corruption party that was formed only a year ago but which is leading the polls. Podemos appeals to voters who are angry or disillusioned with the two parties that have run Spain since General Franco died in 1975, and which have been hit by a series of scandals.
The Socialist party has been accused of large-scale corruption in Andalusia, a traditional stronghold where it controls the regional government. It is alleged that €850 million was awarded in training contracts to the unemployed without proper checks and that the money ended up in party hands.
Pablo Iglesias, the leader of Podemos, has labelled Mr Rajoy and the Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez “la casta” — the elite — because they appear out of touch with the demands of most Spanish voters.
A recent poll for the Cadena Ser radio station gave Podemos the lead with 24.6 per cent, with the Popular party on 22.5 per cent and the opposition Socialists trailing on 19 per cent.
Another small, centrist party, Ciudadanos (Citizens), has emerged this year to steal votes from the Popular party, gaining 13 per cent in the same poll.
At the centre of the alleged web of corruption is Francisco Correa, a businessman who, it is claimed, liked to be known as Don Vito, after the fictional mafia don played by Marlon Brando in The Godfather. Mr Correa is alleged to have paid a series of bribes, including new cars and hotel stays, and paid for the birthday parties of politicians’ children. In return, he was allegedly granted contracts paid for by the Spanish taxpayer.
Ana Mato, the former health minister who is said to be close to Mr Rajoy, will stand trial after she was accused of benefiting financially because her former husband, Jesús Sepúlveda, a mayor in a Madrid district, allegedly “favoured” Mr Correa in the granting of public contracts.
The two other Popular party treasurers who will stand trial are Álvaro Lapuerta and Ángel Sanchis. The party itself is named as one of the defendants who unknowingly benefited from the illegal kickbacks scheme, and will have to send a representative to take the stand.
The prosecutors claim that hundreds of public contracts were granted behind closed doors without conforming to Spanish laws on open competition.
The case relates to the period between 1999 and 2005 but, in total, 187 people have been indicted as suspects in the investigation, so a second trial looks likely.
Mr Bárcenas has been ordered to post bail of €89 million. He is alleged to have accumulated €48 million in Swiss bank accounts, which he said was accrued from property and art sales.
If convicted, Mr Correa and Mr Bárcenas could each face up to 30 years in jail.
All of the defendants deny any wrongdoing.
“This has brought general revulsion towards the Popular party because the longer it has gone on, the more scandalous it has become,” said Daniel Montero, the author of a book titled Correa At Your Throat, about the Gurtel case. He added: “This and other corruption cases associated with the Socialists have helped the rise of Podemos.”