By CHRIS GRAEME [email protected]
Bribery and corruption involving a Portuguese minister, during the PS António Guterres government, have been alleged by British police investigating the licensing and construction of Freeport shopping outlet in Alcochete.
British special branch and anti-fraud squads looking into allegations of back-handers and tax evasion at Freeport Plc, one of the largest shopping outlet developers and operators in Europe, have handed the Portuguese investigative authorities a summary report of their investigation which names 15 suspects believed to have been involved in criminal activities.
These suspects include Freeport directors, Portuguese municipal figures, construction company bosses, solicitors and a former, as yet unnamed, government minister.
Freeport was built within, or perilously close to, an area defined as a European Union Special Protection Zone (SPZ) because of its location on River Tejo estuary wetlands which are home to countless species of migratory birds and wildfowl, some of them endangered and protected.
It was given planning permission despite complaints from environmental groups at one of Guterres’ last ministerial cabinet meetings in March 2002.
British investigators claim in their report that “considerable quantities” of slush-fund money was released from the company’s then headquarters in London and transferred to Portugal via offshore entities in Switzerland and Gibraltar in order, they say, to grease the palms of movers and shakers in the planning permission process.
The 75,000 square metre shopping outlet project cost 250 million euros at the time and was opened with a fanfare of publicity and fireworks in 2002.
But plans for the outlet stretched back to 1999 when British developer R.J McKinney got outline planning permission for the by then abandoned former Firestone tyre factory site in Alcochete, right on the borders of the EU protected natural wetlands reserve.
The Portuguese government had accepted the EU’s conditions that the area should not be developed in exchange for the granting of community funds towards the construction of the Vasco de Gama Bridge in 1998 in time for the World Expo.
R.J McKinney then contracted Portuguese consultants Smith & Pedro as legal agents with getting planning permission and licenses from local municipal authorities, as well as commissioning an Environmental Impact Study for a multi-use shopping centre.
One of the consultant partners was Charles Smith, a British citizen now charged as a defendant in the current Freeport case.
Now, according to the British Police, there are signs that “Freeport obtained environmental authorisation from the Portuguese government through and as a result of pressures put to bear by various interests”.
All this even though the Portuguese state and the European Union had reached a legal understanding that the Firestone land and adjoining plots between an area denominated ‘Vegetable plots and the EN119” were classified for water birdlife within the Rede Natura 2000, Nature Network 2000.
In February 2005, the Public Ministry opened an enquiry into the financial viability of Freeport and suspected corruption.
The PJ Police in Setúbal issued warrants in February 2005 to search the premises of Alcochete Câmara, Freeport’s offices in Portugal and the offices of Smith & Pedro.
On September 9, 2008, the British investigative police proposed a joint British-Portuguese taskforce to investigate the case.
The proposal was discussed in November at the highest level during a meeting of EU legal body Eurojust at The Hague in Holland.
Immediately following that hearing, the British authorities sent a letter to Portugal’s Public Ministry requesting the findings of financial investigations including data from various bank accounts, copies of statements from those heard in the Portuguese process and computer and accountant data seized by the Portuguese authorities.
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