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SCANDAL

Operation Kitchen: What you need to know about the latest spying scandal engulfing Spain’s right

Spain's conservative opposition party is engulfed in a scandal involving allegations an informant was paid out of state coffers to spy on a party bigwig in a case that could taint a former prime minister.

Operation Kitchen: What you need to know about the latest spying scandal engulfing Spain's right
Maria Dolores de Cospedal with former PM Mariano Rajoy during a PP meeting in 2018.

Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has said he hopes the courts will “shed light” on the case which is “very worrying” and “belongs to a dark age” for Spain.   

The affair has dominated headlines in Spain since public prosecutors last week declassified a 52-page document about the investigation into the case, dubbed “Operation Kitchen” because the code name of the alleged informant was “the cook”.

The informant worked as a driver for the former treasurer of the Popular Party (PP), Luis Barcenas, who in May 2018 was sentenced to 33 years in jail for his role in a kickbacks scheme which financed the party known as the Gürtel case.   

The ruling led to the ouster of PP prime minister Mariano Rajoy in a confidence vote in parliament several days later.

Public prosecutors allege the driver received €2,000 ($2,370) per month, as well as the promise of a job in the police force, in exchange for obtaining information regarding where “Barcenas and his wife hide compromising documents” about the PP and its senior leaders, according to a copy of the report seen by AFP.

The probe into “Operation Kitchen” is one of several which have been opened based on searches carried out following the arrest of Jose Manuel Villarejo, a former police commissioner who for years secretly recorded conversations with top political and economic figures to be able to smear them.

'Miserable people'

Prosecutors are looking into “numerous and conclusive” evidence of former interior minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz's role in the affair, as well as that of former defence minister Maria Dolores de Cospedal who is “affected by suspected compromising documents”.   

Fernandez Diaz has said he knew nothing about the alleged spying while Dolores de Cospedal has so far remained silent.   

Both were ministers under Rajoy, who is also mentioned in the prosecutor's report. A transcript of a conversation between Villarejo and Barcena's driver included in the report suggests the former PP treasurer had compromising documents regarding the ex-premier.

Investigating magistrates have the cooperation of former secretary of state for security Francisco Martinez Vazquez who has been indicted as part of the investigation into “Operation Kitchen”.

During an interview published Sunday in top-selling daily newspaper El Pais, he said he wants to “tell the judge everything” he knows about “Operation Kitchen”.

Prosecutors say Vazquez has already provided investigators with messages he exchanged with his former boss Fernandez Diaz which show that the former interior minister was aware of the operation.

“My biggest mistake at the ministry was to be loyal to miserable people like Jorge (Fernandez Diaz), Rajoy or Cospedal,” he said in a message he sent which was included in the prosector's report.

Taking distance


PM Pedro Sanchez (L), elbow bumps with the opposition leader, Pablo Casado, prior to holding a meeting at La Moncloa Palace on Sept 2nd.

 

The scandal comes at a bad time for the PP, which was defeated by the left in the last two general elections and is facing stiff competition from the rise of far-right party Vox.

Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's Socialist party and its smaller coalition partners have requested a parliamentary investigation into “Operation Kitchen”.   

The affair “distracts attention at a time when the PP wanted to unite the right and focus its criticism on the government's handling of the pandemic and the economy,” said Antonio Barroso, an analyst at political consultancy Teneo.   

PP leader Pablo Casado, 39, who took over from Rajoy, has sought to distance himself from the scandal.

“I am not here to protect fellow party members,” he said Monday during an interview with conservative radio Cope.  

“Whoever has to fall will fall,” he added.

Casado stressed last week when the scandal broke that when the alleged spying on Barcenas took place he held no position of responsibility within the PP.

By AFP's Mathieu Gorse

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BANKING

Ex-IMF chief Rato acquitted over Spain’s Bankia scandal

A Spanish court on Tuesday acquitted former IMF chief Rodrigo Rato and all other defendants of fraud and falsifying the books during the botched 2011 floatation of Spain's Bankia, a symbol of the country's banking crisis.

Ex-IMF chief Rato acquitted over Spain's Bankia scandal
The image of a smiling Rato ringing the bell and sipping champagne on July 20, 2011 to mark the start of Bankia's listing has since become a symbol of the scandal. Archive photo: AFP

The National Court, which handles major criminal cases, said the bank's stock listing had received approvals “from all necessary institutions”.    

The listing was very popular with small investors, who lost their shirts when the state had to nationalise the bank the following year and inject €22 billion ($25.7 billion) to keep it from collapsing at a time when the Spanish economy was mired in crisis.   

That in turn prompted the state to borrow €41 billion from the European Union to keep the rest of Spain's banking sector afloat as investor confidence had been shaken.

Rato, 71, who led the International Monetary Fund from 2004 to 2007, led the merger in 2010 of Caja Madrid, which he headed at the time, and six other struggling regional savings banks into Bankia.

The image of a smiling Rato ringing the bell and sipping champagne on July 20, 2011 to mark the start of Bankia's listing has since become a symbol of the scandal.

More than 300,000 small shareholders bought share packages for a minimum of €1,000, attracted by a major advertising campaign and the profits boasted by the bank.

But in 2012, after a disastrous year that saw its share price collapse, the bank admitted that in the year it listed, it had actually made a loss of close to three billion euros.

'Shameful'

Rato, head of the bank at the time, was accused of falsifying the books and fraud to the detriment of investors. He faced a jail sentence of eight and a half years if he had been convicted.

The 31 other people and entities also on trial, among them Bankia, were also cleared.

In its ruling, the court said the prospectus for the listing contained “more than sufficient information for investors… to form a reasoned opinion on the value of the company” and contained a “comprehensive and clear description of the risks”.

It also argued that the procedure which led to Bankia's listing was “intensely and successfully supervised” by the Bank of Spain and financial market authorities which approved it.

During the trial, Rato said Spain's central bank was fully aware of everything that went on at the lender.

“The Bank of Spain would tell us 'do this, do that'. And if at some point we did something they didn't feel was good, it said no,” he told the court.    

A group of activists dubbed “15MpaRato”, which launched one of the first lawsuits that led to the trial, called the ruling “shameful” and said the listing was a “scam”.

Both sides have five days to appeal the ruling.

Merger

The state, which still holds just under 62 percent of Bankia, has recognised several times that it will never be able to recover much of the money it disbursed.

The directors of Bankia and its rival Caixabank last month approved a merger to create Spain's biggest domestic bank by assets. The Spanish state will hold a 16.1 percent share in the new group.

Since October 2018, Rato has been serving a four-and-a-half-year sentence for misusing company credit cards for personal expenses while working at Bankia between 2010 to 2012.

Rato was economy minister and deputy prime minister in the conservative government of Jose Maria Aznar from 1996 to 2004, before going on to head the IMF.

READ MORE: Ex-IMF chief Rato 'seeks forgiveness' as he starts jail term in Spain 

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