Judge recuses herself from corruption trial after reports link ex-husband with GES slush fund

Portugal’s Superior Council of Judiciary saw no impediment to judge remaining on bench

The extraordinary story of how a judge hearing the EDP corruption trial is linked, by marriage, to a former employee of Group Espírito Santo (GES) – whose former figurehead is one of the principal defendants – has finally seen the litigator seek to recuse herself.

At the beginning of this bizarre situation, Margarida Ramos Natário – and Portugal’s Superior Council of the Judiciary – could not see any conflicts of interest.

It then emerged that the judge’s ex-husband had received €1.2 million via a GES “slush fund” – the same fund that made payments to one of the main defendants in the trial, former economy minister Manuel Pinho, not to mention the link it had to the other principal defendant, Ricardo Salgado, former president of GES.

Defence lawyers Ricardo Sá Fernandes and Manuel Magalhães e Silva requesting the judge’s recusal, stressed that her “suitability” was never in question.

“There is no doubt that she genuinely believes she can take part in the trial with complete impartiality”, they argued, but “the issue boils down to the risk that, on the basis of the facts in question, a suspicion is generated about the objectively assessed impartiality of Dr Margarida Ramos Natário, dictated by circumstances of which the Honourable Judge may not yet have been aware, but which are likely to cast that doubt on an outside observer, which can be considered in the light of a criterion of transparency and impartiality that the community of citizens – the people – is entitled to see respected.” 

The circumstances of the judge’s ex-husband were revealed on Thursday by broadcaster SIC and Público newspaper, which reported that Margarida Ramos Natário was married for several years to António Miguel Natário Rio Tinto, who is currently working in Dubai but who in the past held various positions in companies in the Espírito Santo group – such as ES TECH Ventures SGPS and Espírito Santo Informática – and in 2014 became a director at Novo Banco, the successor institution to BES (Banco Espírito Santo).

When questioned about the situation, Portugal’s Superior Council of the Judiciary – which oversees the assignment of judges to cases, promotions and suspensions – considered  “there is no impediment” to Margarida Ramos Natário forming part of the panel in this case. It was a decision supported by the presiding judge of the Lisbon district, Artur Cordeiro, writes Lusa.

This is now all on the way to being academic, as the judge has announced her decision – albeit stressing she doesn’t believe “much has changed.

“I’ll do it out of respect for justice and the role of judges, she told Lusa. “In view of the news that has come out since Thursday, I think it is imperative that I raise the incident of excusal in my own way and that the Court decides. I will do so, not because I think something has changed”.

The development ended up slightly delaying the start of the latest session in this case that has taken many years to get to trial, and in which Ricardo Salgado is unlikely to take the stand, due to his advancing condition of Alzheimer’s.

As Lusa recalls, this trial in a case that “spun off from the main investigation into alleged corruption relating to Energias de Portugal (EDP)” (and for which there have not yet been any charges) is now in its 6th day.

Manuel Pinho, who has been under house arrest for the best part of two years, is accused of receiving a bribe for an illicit act, receiving a bribe, money laundering and tax fraud.

His wife, Alexandra Pinho, is accused of money laundering and tax fraud – in material co-authorship with her husband – while former CEO of BES, Ricardo Salgado, is charged with bribery for an illicit act, bribery and money laundering.

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