Vale do Lobo now a “key link” in Operation Marquês corruption investigation

Following on from allegations that jailed former prime minister José Sócrates may have bent planning laws to “benefit” the Algarve’s luxury resort of Vale do Lobo, the complex’s CEO has been talking to national media, categorically refuting the stories and saying they are a load of nonsense.

But as newspapers continue to report, if Sócrates is allowed home to house arrest on an electronic bracelet at any time in the immediate future, one of the many stipulations will be that he does not enter into contact with any of the Vale do Lobo directors.

Meantime, the resort’s long-term CEO’s Diogo Gaspar Ferreira has been made the eighth “arguido” (official suspect) in the ongoing Operation Marquês investigation – the labyrinthine trawl through a myriad of bank accounts that are said to link the currently jailed Sócrates with millions of euros worth of kick-backs and favours.

Days before be given “arguido” status, Ferreira gave an interview to Expresso’s Micael Perreira, saying it was time to give his side of the story after Vale do Lobo had become the “opening story on all TV news stations” and was being seen as the “centre of the José Sócrates’ case”.

According to Portuguese newspaper Público, the timing was crucial. As soon as Ferreira was made an official “arguido” or suspect in the investigation, he would be bound by the “secrecy of justice” rule.

Thus Ferreira got his moment to deny that PROTAL – the planning law in question that was delayed by seven months in 2007, allegedly to allow Vale do Lobo to press ahead with luxury properties close to the sea – did not bring any benefits to the 450-hectare resort.

Indeed, he stressed, all permissions were already in place “when the plan was approved.

But the CEO has the problem of the testimony of wealthy Dutchman Jeroen Van Dooren, who told Expresso in May that he had transferred €2 million into Ferreira’s personal bank account, which was then tracked to the accounts of two Operation Marquês suspects: construction company boss Joaquim Barroca Rodrigues and Sócrates’ close friend, Carlos Santos Silva.

Thus, the story that has gripped the nation for almost seven months continues apace, with national media now suggesting the investigation is trying to establish whether other politicians were involved.

The Marquês investigation remains focused on Vale do Lobo in a bid to prove the “cause-effect relationship between the decision of the former prime minister and the alleged payment of bribes”.

Second Vale do Lobo king-pin considered “key” witness is “out of the country

A “key witness” investigators are said to want to interview is Hélder Bataglia, one of Vale do Lobo’s wealthy owners.

Bataglia has business connections throughout Angola and the Middle East, and was recently in Portugal to face the parliamentary inquiry regarding the BES bank.

As president of ESCOM – an Espírito Santo group subsidiary – Bataglia was also heavily involved in supporting the German Submarine Consortium in one of the most polemic aspects of the submarine sale to Portugal – the definition of “contrapartidas” (compensation arrangements).

But, for the time being, Bataglia’s whereabouts are unknown, writes CM.

According to Sábado, public prosecutor Rosário Teixeira “suspects” that there is a relationship between the approval of PROTAL and transfers to Switzerland of €12 million, made by Bataglia between 2008-2009.

As many papers have since explained, the money “passed through an account held by Joaquim Barroca Rodrigues (…) and ended up in an account of Carlos Santos Silva”, who is suspected of holding money by use of his lifelong friend José Sócrates.

But proving all this is what is taking time.

The Caixa Geral de Depósitos ‘anomaly’

Meantime, another aspect of the Vale do Lobo connection is getting print-space. The role played by State bank Caixa Geral de Depósitos.

CGD originally paid €28 million for a 25% stake in the resort, but also “financed a part of the investment made by other stakeholders” – Bataglia included.

According to Expresso, the stakeholders still owe over €300 million to the State bank. Other media put the figure at more like €360 million.

But as respected Algarve developer André Jordan intimated earlier this month, is this what a state bank should have been doing?

“CGD financed the purchase of Vale do Lobo by the group led by Gaspar Ferreira, and itself invested €200 million in the company, which puzzled the market as it did not correspond with the habitual policy of a State bank,” he said in a statement, commenting on the implications of the Sócrates investigation for the Algarve.

Even stranger is the revelation reported by CM that at the time CGD was participating in the purchase of Vale do Lobo, its president and administrator were both men “nominated to their posts by the government of José Sócrates.

The latter was former Socialist Minister Armando Vara, who was forced to quit his government post in 2000 over “alleged irregularities”. The case was later archived.

After what Jornal de Negócios describes as “the ruinous deal for CGD sponsored by Vara” in Vale do Lobo, Vara went on to become vice-president of Millennium BCP – from which he was later suspended over allegations that eventually saw him in court charged with the trafficking of influences. The case, Face Oculta, was one of the most expensive in Portuguese history and saw a whole slew of guilty verdicts – Vara’s being one of them. Currently appealing his five-year prison sentence, Vara has always maintained his innocence.

Issuing a statement stressing the need for Vale do Lobo’s part in the Sócrates investigation to be clarified urgently, André Jordan has warned that the whiff of corruption settling over the luxury Algarve resort “could affect the still fragile recovery of the region’s tourist and property markets”.

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