José Manuel Espírito Santo
Portuguese writer / journalist Maria João Avillez has described José Manuel Espírito Santo in interview with Observador as "a good, just and correct man". The image above comes from the parliamentary inquiry in 2014 in which he gave his apology.

Recognition for “the only BES banker who said sorry”

José Manuel Espírito Santos dies after prolonged illness 

There has been recognition this weekend over the death of former BES banker José Manuel Espírito Santo, 77.

“He was the only member of the family with responsibilities at the top of BES to apologise for the consequences of the failure of the bank”, explain media reports, referring to the financial scandal over eight years ago that caused well over €11 billion in damages, stripping hundreds of small investors of their life savings.

Ironically, the cousin of former BES ‘boss of all this’ Ricardo Salgado – himself accused of 65 crimes leading to BES’ collapse – died just as elsewhere the European Court of Human Rights ruled that victims of BES could not expect the State, or the Bank of Portugal, to assume their losses. The man who used to be ‘the face of Banque Privée Espírito Santo in Switzerland suffered a debilitating stroke in 2019 from which he was never able to recover.

Tabloid Correio da Manhã acknowledges that he was the only one of 23 people accused over BES’ collapse to “assume blame and ask forgiveness”.

It wasn’t as if José Manuel Espírito Santo was a ‘major player’ in the alleged fraudulent activity that brought the institution down. As the paper explains, he was “accused of almost all practices related to the fall of the bank, minus criminal association”.

But his death stands as yet another reminder that Justice in Portugal “is so slow that it can lead to cases lapsing due to the natural deaths of defendants”.

In an editorial today, deputy editorial director-general Armando Esteves Pereira begins with the surreal situation in which “eight and a half years following the fall of the Espírito Santo empire, one of its protagonists, José Manuel Espírito Santo, a right hand of the real ‘boss-of-all-this’ Ricardo Espírito Santo Salgado, died without Justice having concluded the cases in which he was involved”.

And while “the disaster of BES was a tragedy for Portugal, the economy, the State and tax payers it gave an opportunity to some vultures to become richer”.

Reflecting the fury of Saturday’s chants in Lisbon (see main menu) over “the few who accumulate many millions” while the bulk of society suffers rising financial demands, Esteves Pereira explains “it is not just Justice that fails in Portugal.

“There are reasons to believe that incredible deals were made around the sale of assets of the former BES and (the ‘good bank that came from it’) Novo Banco”.

Even Novo Banco “which the private fund that owns wants to sell, and could make close to €2 billion is further proof that taxpayers were cheated“, he writes.

“The government that nationalised TAP, with brutal consequences for taxpayers is the same government that privatised Novo Banco with exactly the same result”.

Against this interpretation of how deeply taxpayers have been harmed by political decision-making, the fury of people currently taking part in demonstrations and stand-offs over salaries in the public sector can be better understood.

As for the slow progress of BES through the courts, the 22 individuals still alive to face charges will start being heard as part of a ‘pre-trial’ hearing by judge Pedro Santos Correia on March 21. His ruling on whether or not the case is fit to advance towards a trial will then be ready in April – and even then the way forwards is likely to be tortuous, particularly as the defence team representing Ricardo Salgado claim their client is too incapacitated by Alzheimer’s these days to answer any questions in a courtroom setting.

Box: José Manuel Espírito Santo’s apology, given in December 2014:

Before a parliamentary inquiry into the collapse of BES in 2014, José Manuel Espírito Santo said: “Although this does not remedy the loss and suffering, I want to say that I am deeply sorry for what happened. Individual responsibilities are one thing, and those will be ascertained by the appropriate entities, I assume mine. Institutional responsibility is another thing and, on my own behalf and on behalf of the family branch that I represent, I want to say the first words to all those people who suffered most from all this and who deserve, at least, an institutional apology”.

Those people include hundreds if not thousands of Portuguese emigrés who have been fighting for the investments they lost since the Bank of Portugal stepped in to resolve the BES crisis in July/ August 2014.

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