Rotten to the core

Rotten to the core

Whichever way you look at it, Portugal appears to be rotten to the core. From the top to the bottom, everyone’s at it. Corruption, say the experts, is at the very heart of the crisis.
In a week when more ‘VIP’ prisoners skip out of jail on electronic bracelets, mayors up and down the country take up column inches for all manner of misdemeanours, and health service frauds are reported to have cost the country hundreds of millions of euros, conflicts of interest at the highest level seem to gambol barely unchecked. But could there be light at the end of the tunnel? The EC, in its first comprehensive report on corruption in Europe, is looking for answers, while the Council for the Prevention of Corruption (CPC) in Portugal has declared 2014 to be the year it thoroughly investigates “privatisations, town council fusions, the health service and state-awarded concessions”.
With a budget of only €161,000, the hope is that the CPC can truly “get its scythe into other people’s grass” – as president Guilherme de Oliveira Martins so graphically puts it.

Mystery accounts “receive €20 million”

Meantime, after the Ferrostaal submarine ‘debacle’ finally fell apart on Valentine’s Day “through lack of evidence” following eight long years of judicial proceedings, Correio da Manhã newspaper reveals criminal investigators have “proof” that evidence is out there. More than €20 million disappeared into mystery accounts, the newspaper claims – allegedly to be used in the payment of ‘favours’.
While bystanders simply gawp and minds boggle at the costs that had been incurred in a trail that went nowhere, the delighted lawyer of three German businessmen cleared in the case told reporters: “I consider justice was done but, above all, there was an immense level of intellectual rigour.”
According to corruption watchdog Paulo Morais – a university lecturer in Porto and vice-president of the civic association Transparency and Integrity – “only in Mongolia do you find levels of conflicts of interest similar to those in Portugal”.
“If we want to develop, we have to combat corruption” or the country could transform into the “Albania of Western Europe”, he warned.
Talking at a conference entitled ‘Corruption: Cause or Consequence of the Crisis’, Morais maintained corruption and conflicts of interest are “permitted” by the Portuguese State “because Parliament has as many as 60 MPs who are also consultants and administrators of firms that do business with the State”.
On page 8 of this edition, the Resident reports on a former PSD MP – now in charge of giving out billions of euros worth of QREN funding – being accused of “helping various companies” in which he himself has shares.
“Corruption is generalised,” writes Público newspaper. “It has worsened in the last three years” (in other words, since this ‘anti-corruption’ government came into power) and it affects the day-to-day life of a third of the population.
The EC is of the same opinion and this month, in its first anti-corruption report, had some strong words for the country that its own people see, according to the latest Gallup Poll, as “one of the most corrupt in the world”.
In spite of various initiatives and new laws, “there is no national strategy in place to combat corruption in Portugal,” says Brussels, which encourages the country to present a “register of proved results from judicial processes”.
The commission considers the “effective exercise of penal action on high-level corruption cases continues to be a challenge” and demands to know why “just 8.5% of a total of 838 cases investigated for corruption between 2004 and 2008 resulted in judicial decisions” that were only pronounced upon in 2010.
“There are examples of cases that involve suspects of high-level corruption and illegal financing of political parties in which the judicial proceedings take over six years,” complains Brussels.
The EC maintains that Portugal has to prepare special courts, the Public Ministry and “coercive authorities to deal with these cases”, writes Público.

No end of corruption cases

Skimming the cases on Portugal’s ‘red carpet’ of corruption, Público adds: “There is no end of high-profile examples: Apito Dourado (football referees case), Freeport (Alcochete outlet case involving former PM José Sócrates), the Submarines (involving Deputy PM Paulo Portas), Taguspark (political scandal) and Face Oculta (scrap metal scheme) are just some investigated by Portuguese Justice and only one of them, the first, saw the majority of suspects condemned.”
Indeed, Face Oculta, writes Público, has involved so many appeals and hiccups – as well as big names linked to public companies and the government – that it may never come to a close.

Health service corruption costs hundreds of millions

Despite criticism that corruption has actually worsened on its watch, the government has made inroads in areas where politicians are not involved – with some extraordinary cases of fraud and theft coming to trial in the last few weeks.
From money-grabbing ‘turbo’ doctors claiming multiple salaries for the same shift, to prescription-drug rings swindling the state out of millions while selling medication abroad, investigators have been kept on their toes.
On Tuesday this week, Correio da Manhã covered yet another scandal before a judge in Monsanto. “Remédio Santo” involves a total of 18 defendants – among them a cardiologist who is said to have received over €40,000 in a series of envelopes for prescribing fictitious prescriptions subsidised heavily by the state.
The full extent of the fraud is thought to have cost the health service over €4 million. This is little compared to “Consulta Vicentina” – another health fraud believed to have netted doctors and pharmacists over €100 million.

Should politicians be paid more?

But the reality is that the highest profile, most-talked-about corruption stories all centre on politicians and public officials – whether national or local. Thus, the idea of Mouraz Lopes, also talking at the recent corruption conference chaired by Paulo Morais, and himself president of the ASJP judges syndicate. Without going into details, Mouraz Lopes argued that a solution to the problem should pass to prevention, to avoid that these things happen at all.
“Impediments should be reinforced,” without this meaning that “mediocre people” get top-level jobs, Lopes elaborated. This could “mean paying politicians more” and “reviewing the remuneratory statutes for those who exercise public office”.
As Algarve journalist Len Port, writing for the Portuguese American Journal, concluded in his look at the Gallup report on corruption in Portugal: “After noting at the end of its latest research report that things do not seem to have got any better over the past several years, Gallup concluded rather wearily: “Improving these perceptions is likely to be a long-term task…”
By NATASHA DONN [email protected]