The Fat Man Finally Sings

In Spain, a scandal that will not die: gigantic bribes from construction magnates to the conservative Partido Popular that went on for decades, secret account books registering payoffs to major party figures including President Mariano Rajoy, and a party treasurer who last week began to sing just as he was trundled off to prison.

Former senator and longtime party bureaucrat Luis Barcenas spent two decades in the PP’s finance office, he says, keeping meticulous records of bribes so that the party could keep track of favors that it owed to its paymasters. Finally appointed as party treasurer in 2008, his downfall was rapid and spectacular. Fearing a search of his house, he made the mistake of handing over his account books to a lawyer friend for safekeeping: they were leaked to the press six months ago and published over his tepid denials of their authenticity. Here, he finally acknowledges that the secret account books are real.

A few days before he reported to prison, Luis Barcenas described to me how the Partido Popular spent the last 20 years illegally financing itself. In a long conversation, he explained that it took cash donations from builders and other businessmen who in turn received awards and contracts from national and local governments controlled by the party.

The modus operandi was similar to the technique El Mundo described previously when we reported on testimony from one of the donors in February. The money would be handed over in bags, briefcases or suitcases at the office of [Barcenas’ predecessor as Party Treasurer] Alvaro Lapuerta on Genova St., in the presence of Barcenas as accounts manager. The two would count the bills and put them into a safe, often making jokes about whether they trusted one another or not.

Once the donor left the office, Lapuerta would take a business card from his wallet and on the back would note down in tiny handwriting the name and the amount the donor had handed over. Barcenas would do likewise in an account book with corresponding lines. Periodically, Lapuerta would compare the mess of cards that he always carried around with him to the entries in Barcenas’ account book and, finding them matching, certify them with a stamp in the margin.

The day after the handover, or at most a week after, Lapuerta would call the appropriate minister, secretary of state, regional president, regional minister, mayor or council member who was relevant to the donor’s business matter. According to Barcenas, he would always fall back on the same phrasing: “How are things? This is Alvaro Lapuerta. So-and-so is going to call you. I have an interest in you hearing him out. I don’t know what he is going to talk to you about. I am just asking that you be friendly and have a coffee with him.” Everyone knew that it was the party treasurer who was talking to them.

According to this version, part of the money that was handed over went into the party’s bank accounts, part was used to pay electoral campaign overruns under the table to avoid monitoring by the Court of Auditors, and part stayed in the safe to be used for ‘other ends.’ Payouts were likewise made in cash, with Barcenas noting each withdrawal on the same pages of graph paper that noted the deposits. All of this is reflected in the so-called “Barcenas Papers,” taken down by the accounts manager in his own hand over the years.

Barcenas says that the most important of these ‘other ends’ were quarterly cash bonus payments to the president, general secretary and vice-secretary generals of the party. When the Partido Popular was in opposition, the handouts were made in the offices of the party’s headquarters. When the party was in power, Lapuerta would take the envelopes directly to the ministries or other government offices. According to Barcenas, Lapuerta particularly enjoyed this task and often liked to combine it with some personal touch. In one case, together with the envelope, he brought a box of Montecriso cigars to the corresponding minister.

Barcenas explained to me that last January, he left the papers with his friend the lawyer Jorge Trias to evaluate their importance and keep them away from a potential search of Barcenas’ home. He says that Trias called them ‘a bombshell,’ betrayed his confidence, made photocopies and handed them over to El Pais daily just days before El Mundo laid bare the systematic practice of paying politicians cash bonuses.

barcenasEXTRA21Barcenas’secret account book, president Mariano Rajoy entry at top. Photo Creative Commons.

According to Barcenas, on Friday Feb. 1, the day after their publication, Marilar de Andres, head of communications for the PP and close confidant of [PP figure] Javier Arenas, called him to ask that he deny their authenticity. Barcenas said he would think about it; soon after he received another call from Euro-Deputy Gerardo Galeote, until then a close friend, again asking the same thing. On the advice of lawyers, Barcenas opted instead to release a tepid statement denying that there were irregularities in the Partido Popular, but without denying his authorship of the documents. He says that at the end of that day President Rajoy sent him a text message saying that he ‘understood’ his decision, that he should be ‘calm and serene’ and that the next day he would call him.

Since the call from Rajoy never came, it was Barcenas who called the president, telling him that he was indeed ‘calm and serene’ but that he was still hoped to have the promised conversation. He immediately got a call from ‘a third person’ who told him that the former ministers Michavila and Acebes would be his interlocutors with the president. And so it was. Five days after their publication Barcenas denied his authorship of the papers on TV-13. “This notebook does not exist, it has never existed, and therefore this is not my writing.”

Barcenas told me that this false denial was an ‘act of loyalty’ toward Rajoy and the party. He also described how he tried to falsify his own writing style during a handwriting test before investigators, and described the huge ‘fit’ the PP threw when he refused to do it again during the trial. He told me he has watched the video of his own testimony before Judge Ruz several times, in which he again denied he had kept a second set of books; he said [watching his testimony]that he was surprised how easily he had denied the truth, even keeping in mind his right to do so as a suspect.

According to his tale, this ‘act of loyalty’ was part of an agreed process of disengagement from the PP which continued until his Swiss bank accounts were discovered. Part of this process was a meeting at Rajoy’s office on Genova St., which he described in all of its compelling details; a meeting attended by his wife Rosalia Iglesias, and by Javier Arenas, a friend of both as well as vice-secretary of the party. The meeting lasted several hours, during which Arenas kept delaying his return reservation on the high speed train to Seville. Rosalia Iglesias and Rajoy were seated, shoulder to shoulder, in front of a low table, with their backs against the wall, facing, respectively, Arenas and Barcenas.

The conversation grew tense when Barcenas blamed party secretary general Maria Dolores de Cospedal for news items unfavorable to him that were being published in El Mundo and other media. “They are crushing me! Either you put a stop to this woman, or you aren’t going to have a [party]general secretary anymore!” he told Rajoy. “The only irregularity I have committed in all these years here, has been for the sake of this woman.”

To the stupefacition of Arenas and Rajoy, Barcenas described a 200,000 euro commission paid to the PP of Castilla-La Mancha in exchange for the awarding of a municipal contract in Toledo to a construction firm whose controversial president appears on the list of donors to the party. When Barcenas showed them documentation proving the transaction, Rajoy literally clapped his hands to his head and-again according to the memory of the former treasurer-exclaimed “For God’s sake, Luis, how can you have those papers!”

According to Barcenas, Rajoy changing his tone, appealed to his feelings of guilt. “Take it easy, Luis, take it easy.” He also told him: “you are the victim of a political persecution. This isn’t really about you, it is about me.” And turning to Barcenas’ wife, he said, “Rosa, we are not going to abandon you two.” And at that moment, from the other side of the table, Arenas took the arm of Rosalia Iglesias in a sign of solidarity and support.

According to Barcenas, at this meeting it was agreed that he would formally leave his post as party treasurer, but would continuing being paid the same salary, and would keep his official car and other perks from the party. The ex-treasurer said the only thing he asked from Rajoy regarding the legal process was that the president do everything he could to get the two anti-corruption prosecutors assigned to his case changed, due to their ‘animosity’ toward him. Rajoy promised him that everything would be ‘different’ when the PP took power.

Arenas admits that this meeting took place and that he was present; however he says that it was merely a ‘friendly’ meeting and had no ‘political importance.’ He admits that Rajoy successively assigned him to convince Barcenas to leave his post as treasurer and then to convince him to quit the senate. But he says he had nothing to do with any monetary agreements and underlines that this was his ‘only intervention’ in the Barcenas case. He also says he and Barcenas normally only saw each other maybe once a year, at Marbella during summer vacations.

According to Barcenas, at the end of 2012, when he found out that the Swiss authorities had demanded information from his bank at the request of a Spanish rogatory commission, he spoke to Arenas and asked him to tell Rajoy about the money he had there, and that he had regularized his situation with the Spanish tax authorities, taking advantage of the Montoro tax amnesty. He also told him that in order to protect the PP from the predictable scandal, he should stop taking his salary, putting an end to 30 years of work by way of this settlement. Arenas denies that this conversation ever took place.

According to Barcenas, a couple of weeks later, in December now, Arenas called him from Seville to tell him that he had taken these measures. Initially they agreed to “meet halfway” between Seville and Madrid, at a restaurant near Cordoba, but Barcenas later told him that since he was already going to be getting on the high speed train, he might as well do the whole trip. So they ended up at the Oriza restaurant in Seville, and during the lunch, Arenas told him that he had met with Rajoy at La Moncloa and told him of Barcenas’ proposal. Barcenas says Arenas told him the president thought that given that he had already regularized his tax situation, the best thing to do was to leave everything as it was. Arenas denies being at the Oriza restaurant in Seville at any moment in the past year. Barcenas told me that he could prove the exact date of the meeting via his travel agency, but his entry into prison has prevented him from doing so.

Barcenas also told me that Arenas had told him – it was not clear if it was in this meeting or another- that Rajoy was very concerned because Lapuerta had ‘blackmailed’ him into putting the name of his political protege Carmen Rodriguez Flores on both the municipal and general election ballots. According to Barcenas, Lapuerta told him directly that President Rajoy ‘was stalling him’ and that since he could not take this anymore after so many years of ‘service to the party’ he was prepared to use the ‘second set of books’ to put pressure on him. Barcenas says he tried to convince Lapuerta not to do it.

Barcenas told me that what has been published so far is only a small part of the documentation he has in his possession. He claims that in addition to the originals of the photocopies Trias made, he still has the ‘second set of books’ from the years that have not been published yet, and that in them are illegal payments to PP leaders – including one whom he says asked to be compensated for being moved from one public office to a less-well paid post, one to an ex-leader of the Socialist party, and to a journalist. Even more important, he says, are other documents and hard discs that demonstrate the systematic illegal finance of the party’s electoral campaigns.

Barcenas did not want to go into further detail, but at one point he said that divulging these documents would “make the government fall” and he added that he took it for granted that I agreed that “the best thing for Spain is that this government should fall.” I answered him that in any event, the last thing a democracy needs is to find itself based on a lie.

Barcenas related several anecdotes about buying suits for Rajoy with the party’s hidden account, implicating his own tailor and the party leader Juan Costa who is known for his elegance. Regarding the origin of his Swiss fortune [of more than 20 million euros], Barcenas claimed that it is ‘completely legal,’ and ‘has nothing to do’ with the PP, coming instead from stock market transactions and other business. I was repeatedly skeptical; he said that he can show it when called upon in court. He added that the witness who told the judge that she had been paid to make up fake transactions had in fact tried to extort him.

I had never met Luis Barcenas before, but I recognized in him the character from Raul del Pozo’s magisterial “Tercer Hombre: Barcenas tiene los papeles”: difficult, conscientious and rotund. It was four hours of looking one another in the eyes without blinking. A the end of the conversation, I told him that if he could prove, with documents, half of what he had told me, it would result in an enormous catharsis of the Spanish political system, and would be an important service to society. But for as long as he didn’t do it, his situation would be more and more like that of Jose Amedo, a man who for very different reasons, was sentenced to 108 years in prison, there to pay for both his own sins and those of many others.

Pedro Ramirez