João Galamba
Nobody in Portugal's PS government has had a good week, but João Galamba has definitely had one of the worst weeks in his political career so far. Image: Luís Forra/ Lusa

Day of denials: compromised minister goes on attack

João Galamba reacts to tabloid cover story

Minister of Infrastructure, João Galamba, denied today that he “stole power from the Minister of Economy” by changing an ordinance, as reported in Correio da Manhã, saying that it was “a legal impossibility”.

Correio da Manhã (CM) reports today that according to the Public Prosecutor’s Office, João Galamba, as Secretary of State for Energy, “took decision-making power away from Economy Minister António Costa e Silva in order to benefit the Start Campus company in the data centre in Sines”.

The newspaper writes that João Galamba “robbed” the Minister of Economy, António Costa e Silva, of his decision-making power through Ministerial Order 248/2022, of September 29, which gave the Secretary of State for Energy the power to authorise the use of REN’s land and infrastructure for other purposes, to the detriment of the Minister of Economy, as established in Ministerial Order 96/2004, of January 23. He also extended the scope of these ‘other purposes’.

Speaking to CMTV today, João Galamba, himself one of the official suspects in the corruption probe that has brought his government down, said the news “is false, a lie and a legal impossibility.

“Any jurist knows that this is an impossibility because it’s not possible for a secretary of state to take power away from anyone by decree (…) I already have that competence, I’m not stealing anything from anyone. This amendment simply says: where it used to read Minister of the Economy, it now reads the person responsible for the Energy portfolio, which under the terms of the decree-law is the minister who in the specific organisation of a government has the Energy portfolio, which can be the Minister of the Economy or anyone else. As it happens, in that government he was the Minister for the Environment and I had powers as Secretary of State…

“Anyone who understands the law and knows how to read ordinances and an organic government law realises this,” he insisted.

According to the CM, public prosecutors believe the change to the ordinance was aimed at one objective: “to allow REN’s gas transmission infrastructures to also be used to route fibre optic cables, which would facilitate data connections to the data centre, namely those coming from submarine cables”.

The newspaper also says that the “wiretaps indicate that the change made to the ordinance was ‘drafted by people working for Start Campus in its interests’ and approved by the then Secretary of State João Galamba at the request of Afonso Salema and Rui Oliveira Neves, Start Campus directors and defendants in the case”, and both still in preventive custody, awaiting to hear bail measures later this afternoon.

The country has been assailled by claims and counter claims (even counter, counter claims) since last Tuesday when 42 searches led to the arrest of five people for questioning: the prime minister’s chief of staff, Vítor Escária, the mayor of Sines, Nuno Mascarenhas, two directors of Start Campus, Afonso Salema and Rui Oliveira Neves, and the lawyer Diogo Lacerda Machado, the ‘best friend’ of António Costa whom has since been ‘disowned’ by the PM in an unexpected speech over the weekend that is still being talked about in today’s papers.

What with the ‘confirmation’ by the Governor of the Bank of Portugal that he had been invited to form a government by the President and the prime minister; the denial of the former that anything of the kind had taken place; the statement by the governor that yes, the President hadn’t actually invited him – and now João Galamba’s protestations, Portugal’s political crisis is lurching every which way. We still have the meeting between Mr Costa and President Marcelo tomorrow afternoon to ‘look forward to’. A number of commentators have suggested this will be the moment when João Galamba is relieved of his post, and duties in government. CM has actually suggested environment minister Duarte Cordeiro could be another ‘casualty’.

To recap on the truly surreal week in politics so far, there are currently nine defendants in the case dubbed Operation Influencer. Beyond João Galamba and those currently in preventive custody, there is president of the Portuguese Environment Agency, Nuno Lacasta, lawyer and former PS spokesman João Tiago Silveira and the Start Campus company as an entity.

According to the Public Prosecutor’s Office (MP), the investigation into the lithium, green hydrogen and Sines data centre deals may involve the crimes of malfeasance, active and passive corruption of a political office holder and influence peddling, says Lusa.

António Costa meantime is the target of an investigation by the Public Prosecutor’s Office at the Supreme Court of Justice, after suspects invoked his name as having intervened to unblock procedures in the businesses under investigation.

The PM’s speech over the weekend denied this and essentially explained that foreign investment was vital for Portugal and thus benefitted from measures of simplification.

Mr Costa remains ‘at the helm’ for now, managing the government through till the final reading of the State Budget on November 29, shortly after which the President of the Republic will be dissolving parliament ahead of elections on March 10, 2024.ND