Three ex-judges and president of Benfica Luís Filipe Vieira have today been formally charged – along with 13 others – over corruption investigation Operation Lex.
The timing in the case of Vieira could not have been worse (click here). He is in the middle of a ‘re-election campaign’ that has already been immersed in controversy for the weight of national and local politicians whose names were supporting him (click here).
But the fact that three former (already publicly disgraced) appeal court judges have been seen to have enough ‘evidence’ against them for prosecutors to insist they go to trial is ‘unprecedented’.
Television commentator José Gomes Ferreira has described the situation as “an enormous weight” (meaning colossal embarrassment) for the Portuguese Justice system.
Stories swirling in the press over the last few days have been surreal – some even suggesting judge Rui Rangel got a very much younger girlfriend to deduce and write up a number of his judicial rulings.
Rangel has ‘denied’ this, but the young woman in question is understood to have failed her legal exams and no longer be recognised by the Law Society (Ordem dos Advogados).
At a time when every corner of society seems to be upside down, this is yet another story to leave people reeling.
Lex has been under investigation for the last four years and involves the alleged practice of “crimes of passive and active corruption, receipt of undue advantage, abuse of power, abuse of functions, falsification of documents, fiscal fraud and money-laundering”.
It centres, explain reports, on “the activity developed by three Lisbon appeal court judges who used their functions to obtain undue advantages for themselves and others. Advantages that the beneficiaries went on to conceal”.
Prosecutors have now ‘frozen’ the assets of the former judges: Rui Rangel, his former wife Fátima Galante and Luís Vaz de Neves, who stepped down in a media storm in March (click here).
Rádio Renascença puts the calculated ‘damages to the State’ at play (in terms of undeclared income) at over 1.5 million euros. Indeed SIC suggests just Rangel and Galante alone will need to make restitution to the State of 1.4 million euros. To this end, the Public Ministry has ‘seized’ three houses and a plot of urban land, says the television station.
Luís Filipe Vieira’s ‘part’ in the complex case appears to be connected with receiving help with and information on judicial matters in return for favours, particularly benefiting Judge Rangel.
The three former judges are not the only members of the judiciary involved in Lex, though they are the ‘biggest fish’ in the murky pond.
There are a number of ‘connecting cases’ said to be involved with Lex, as well as other personalities like former Benfica director José Veiga, absolved of crimes of fiscal fraud and money-laundering by another judge at the Lisbon Court of Appeal – and more recently cited in further alleged scandal involving corruption in the Congo (click here).
Reacting to this latest ‘unprecedented’ case finally reaching the stage where charges are all laid out – and allegations splashed over the nation’s media – President Marcelo put the best possible spin on the situation saying that “whatever the verdict” he was simply “glad to have witnessed important steps in Portuguese Justice” in terms of cases that have caused public concern.
Rattling off some of the names – Operation Marquês, involving former Socialist prime minister José Sócrates accused of receiving bribes, money laundering, falsifying documents and tax fraud – and BES. involving banking malpractice on a gargantuan scale, the common thread is that none of these investigations have actually yet reached the point where the long list of defendants are being actively tried by the courts.
Yet Marcelo told reporters that “for people who feared justice was blocked in the most complex and sensitive cases and that this was a bad sign for the democratic rule of law – regardless of the progress of these cases – it is important to realise that the institutions are doing everything to meet a requirement that there is justice”.