by CHRIS GRAEME
A DVD recording of a conversation between a Freeport director and an English businessman revealed that a former Portuguese minister received backhanders to ease the planning permission of Europe’s then largest shopping outlet on an EU protected nature reserve.
Evidence collected from British police investigations, which have been ongoing since 2007, include the DVD recording of the conversation between Charles Smith, former partner of consultants Smith & Pedro, contracted by Freeport Plc, in which Smith confirms that he has paid “several backhanders to Portuguese political figures” to move the construction of Freeport Outlet at Alcochete forward.
The conversation is quite explicit and names ‘the minister’ who is one of 15 suspects who, according to British Police, received under-the-table payments from Freeport Plc to allow any planning permission considerations that would have jeopardized the project to be overridden.
The DVD recording is seen by British police as one of the first and main pieces of evidence which points towards corruption, breaking EU laws and tax fraud over the Freeport project.
Consultants Smith & Pedro were employed by Freeport Plc to obtain the necessary permits and planning permission licenses at a state and municipal level as well as commissioning an Environmental Impact Study that would be favourable to the project.
The backhander money was deposited in off-shore banks into a slush fund account to allegedly bribe Portuguese politicians and officials to close their eyes to European and local legal restrictions.
Freeport Outlet at Alcochete had been just within the boundary of the European Union Tejo Estuary Special Protection Zone created in November 1994 although strangely the Guterres government moved the limits in May 2002 to the left side of the Vasco da Gama Bridge so that Alcochete would not fall within the actual pre-existing Tejo Protection Zone.
The first two Environmental Impact Studies, including the one carried out by Smith & Pedro, were turned down but the third was approved by the Portuguese Prime Minister’s Cabinet (Conselho de Ministros) just three days before the 2002 General Election in which Guterres lost power.
Contacted by the Algarve Resident in the autumn of last year the consultants Smith & Pedro stated clearly they would be making no comment and put this newspaper onto Freeport at Alcochete who also refused to comment and suggested the Algarve Resident contact Freeport in the United Kingdom. They, despite several calls, and a list of questions, never replied to either the questions put to them or even ever made any statement.
British interests in Freeport and the case in Portugal began in 2007 when US group Carlyle launched a takeover bid in London for Freeport offering shareholders 7.19 euros per share at what was later discovered to be an artificially inflated price.
Freeport at Alcochete, one of the largest retail parks in Europe, was in fact shown to be a complete flop and has been teetering on the verge of bankruptcy ever since.
Following an audit Carlyle realised it had been hoodwinked and tried to pull out of the deal, but the deal was in a too far advanced stage and Carlyle was left with a white elephant.
In 2005 the British Anti-Fraud Squad and Inland Revenue and the Policia Judiciaria in Setubal exchanged letters over solicited information related to Freeport including bank account details of both Freeport and its directors and Smith & Pedro.
Last week the Procurator-General of Portugal, Pinto Monteiro, issued a statement that the Portuguese authorities did “not have a former or current Portuguese socialist minister” on its list of suspects “for corruption crimes”.
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