Scandal-hit former PP Valencia mayor called as suspect in corruption probe

Former Valencia mayor Rita Barberá.

Former Valencia mayor Rita Barberá.

Rita Barberá faces possibility of being stripped of senatorial immunity from prosecution

Spain’s Supreme Court has fixed a date for a hearing that will see Rita Barberá, the former Popular Party (PP) mayor of Valencia, questioned as an official suspect in a corruption case.

Judge Cándido Conde Pumpido said in a statement on Thursday that Barberá – one of the PP’s longest-serving officials, and who ran Spain’s third-largest city between 1991 and 2015 – has been called to appear on November 21.

This autumn will see several corruption-related trials involving the Popular Party

Barberá, who resigned from the conservative PP in September under pressure from the leadership and is now an independent senator, is being investigated as a result of Operation Taula, launched at the beginning of this year to look into the activities of local governments in the provinces of Valencia, Alicante and Castellón as well as the Diputación de Valencia – the provincial authority. The operation is focusing heavily on Valencia province, however.

Operation Taula has produced around 50 arrests of PP officials believed to have participated in a corrupt network that charged commissions in exchange for granting public contracts. Sources said investigators are also contemplating the possibility that part of the money was used for illegal party financing on the part of the Valencia branch of the PP.

The suspects may have committed embezzlement offenses, bribed public officials and laundered money, among other crimes. The scope of the illegal activities, which date back several years, was described by one source as “enormous.”

The judge overseeing Operation Taula is investigating donations of €1,000 from elected PP officials and party advisors, including Barberá, supposedly used to launder money of allegedly illegal origin that funded election campaigns in 2003, 2011 and 2015. In exchange for their donations, the officials were allegedly given two €500 banknotes in return.

Barberá resigned from the conservative PP in September and is now an independent senator

“It is essential to continue looking into the facts of the case and what role Rita Barberá played in them,” the Supreme Court statement said. “Rita Barberá was one of the people who seen to have made the €1,000 donation. It makes no sense to call others who made donations to testify and to not do the same with the Senator,” it said, referring to Barberá.

The politician will appear in court on a voluntary basis, after which the court will decide whether to ask the Senate to pass an act that would enable her to be tried by a lower court.

Senators, lawmakers, magistrates and other public officials are granted a legal privilege known in Spanish as aforamiento, which prevents them from being tried by any tribunal lower than the Supreme Court.

The ruling PP has been hit by several scandals in the past few years, with high- and mid-level officials accused of illegal financing, possessing offshore bank accounts, accepting kickbacks and rigging public tenders, among many other alleged crimes relating to abuse of public office.

This autumn will see a number of corruption-related trials involving the PP, the first of which, relating to the kickbacks-for-contracts network Operation Gürtel, is currently underway.

Published ElPais 21 October 2016

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