By CHRIS GRAEME [email protected]
Portuguese Public Ministry magistrates investigating alleged corruption involving Europe’s largest retail outlet near Lisbon have exonerated Prime Minister José Sócrates from any illegal involvement.
The reason given for removing Sócrates’ name from the list of suspects that may have received millions of euros in backhanders in return for granting planning permission for Freeport at Alcochete in 2002 was the lack of any hard evidence of money trails.
According to the weekly newspaper Expresso at the weekend, investigators were unable to uncover any financial information from bank accounts linking the Prime Minister to corruption in the case.
The Public Ministry has now cancelled a trip to London to interview a former Freeport director and witness Jonathan Rawnsley, who was said to be an essential piece to uncovering what happened at Freeport.
The ex-director of the Freeport Group’s Development section was instead interviewed by the Serious Fraud Office on April 12 while members of the Portuguese Public Ministry and Polícia Judiciária were allowed to listen in on the interview via a telephone link.
The Portuguese investigators say that whatever the SFO report now states they will not change their minds and Sócrates is no longer considered a suspect.
However, the Portuguese Central Criminal Investigation Department, DCIAP, states that the Freeport Case will not be closed this month as had been suggested earlier in the year.
It’s Director, Cândida Almeida, said last week that the case would be “swiftly resolved” and added that the “magistrates don’t want to prolong the situation very much longer” outside a Conference on Corruption in Portugal held in Lisbon.
Cândida Almeida praised DCIAP and Polícia Judiciária investigations which had been of “extraordinary quality” with investigators’ reports containing “many thousands of pages” in a case which had been “studied deeply and with thorough cross-referencing with other collected data.”
The Freeport Case, which has been investigating alleged corruption and traffic of influence since 2004, blew up during the coalition PSD-CDS/PP government led by Durão Barroso and later Santana Lopes.
It was suggested that the Portuguese Ministry for the Environment may have fast-tracked planning permission for the retail outlet located on the boundaries of an EU and Portuguese protected nature wetland zone on the River Tejo Estuary. José Sócrates was the Minister for the Environment during the second term of António Guterres’ Socialist government at the time.
It was also suggested by environmental groups that the Ministry had actually changed the boundaries of the wetlands which provide sanctuary to scores of rare migratory birds in the winter months.
So far Scottish businessman, Charles Smith and his former business partner Manuel Pedro, who ran the consultancy Smith & Pedro which advised Freeport on planning issues, Carlos Guerra, the ex-president of the Portuguese Institute of Nature Conservation, José Dias Inocêncio, former president of Alcochete Câmara, José Manuel Marques, Alcochete Câmara advisor and Eduardo Capinha Lopes, an architect, have been made legal suspects in the case.