A Spanish whistleblower appeals to the EU for help

By Raphael Minder

He leaked files that led to the prosecution of one of the biggest labor corruption scandals in Spain’s history. But instead of being lauded for whistleblowing, he was charged with revealing workplace secrets and sentenced to two years in prison.

The leaker, Roberto Macías, filed an appeal this month in a case that highlights the weak protections given to whistleblowers in many of the member states of the European Union — and the bloc’s efforts to strengthen them.

More than half of European nations, including Spain, offer little to no national protection for whistleblowers, undermining efforts to fight corruption. But an EU law passed in 2019 requires organizations of more than 50 employees to set up internal channels for people to report wrongdoing, and then to act upon such information within three months of receiving it.

Enforcement of it could help the bloc recoup billions of dollars siphoned off by corruption. Weak or nonexistent whistleblower laws waste 5.8 billion to 9.6 billion euros ($6.8 billion to $11.3 billion) each year in public procurement spending alone, according to a 2017 study by the European Commission.

Macías is one of the first people to test Europe’s new commitment to require member states to protect whistleblowers. In his appeal, he is arguing that the law obligates Spain to safeguard him rather than punish him. Member states have until December 2021 to adopt the new law, but all EU citizens can already sue under it.

“This case should allow us to see how Europe’s political commitment to fighting corruption translates into practice in a country like Spain,” said Fruitós Richarte i Travesset, a former Spanish judge who is now a law professor at the Rovira i Virgili University. Richarte i Travesset added that Spain “needs to change not only its legislation but also its mentality, because every advanced society should encourage citizens to denounce fraud.”

Spain’s lawmakers have been debating how to strengthen the country’s anti-corruption laws since 2016 but have been unable to agree on how to do so. The most recent proposal — by the Ciudadanos party — was voted down by Parliament in June.

Left-wing parties argued that the law, which targeted public corruption, did not go far enough in addressing corporate and individual fraud.

Failing to fight political fraud and protect whistleblowers undermines democracy “because when people do not trust their institutions, they do not have faith in democracy,” Edmundo Bal, a Ciudadanos lawmaker, said during June’s parliamentary debate over the thwarted proposal.

Spain has in recent years been racked by some major scandals that have been exposed by whistleblowers. While few have been prosecuted, many have complained that they have faced ostracism. In 2018, dodgy contracts provided by a town hall employee led to a lengthy investigation that resulted in Spain’s conservative Popular Party being found guilty of operating a kickback scheme. The employee, Ana Garrido, suffered what she called “a calvary,” including death threats that caused her to take sick leave for depression.

Macías, 40, worked for four years as an official for the General Union of Workers, one of Spain’s two main unions. During that time, he became suspicious that his union was engaging in wrongdoing, and he downloaded thousands of computer files from his workplace that he believed might prove it.

In late 2012, he was laid off from the job, part of a downsizing of the union. In 2013, a few months after being laid off, Macías leaked the files to Spanish newspapers, helping fuel a national scandal implicating several officials in the misuse of public money. The money that the union received was meant to be spent on helping the unemployed, but prosecutors allege the union spent it on unrelated events, including feasts. Union officials deny the accusations.

Macías leaked the files anonymously, but through cyber-detective work, the union discovered his identity and filed a criminal lawsuit against him, arguing that under Spanish law protecting confidentiality in the workplace, he should have complained to a court or the police rather than hand over files to journalists. That, the union said, had provoked “an indiscriminate media lynching of our organization.”

In May, he was sentenced to two years for sharing the information without the consent of his former employer. The prosecution of union officials implicated in the scandal has proceeded more slowly, with five former officials still awaiting trial.

“My only crime has been to reveal a secret kept by my union that is called corruption, which is something for which I never even expected to get prosecuted,” Macías, whose sentence is suspended until his appeal ends, said in a recent interview.

“My motivation to fight corruption has come from deep inside my conscience and my heart,” Macías said. “I had been working for a union that was pretending to care for the unemployed while stealing money that was meant to help them.”

The scandal over the misuse of unemployment subsidies has led to other investigations, including one focused on whether governing officials in Andalusia, Spain’s largest region, illegally put their friends and relatives on the list of people eligible for layoff compensation.

Last November, two of Andalusia’s former Socialist leaders — José Antonio Griñán and Manuel Chaves — were convicted of breach of public duty while overseeing an unemployment payment scheme that the court called fraudulent. Both are appealing. Griñán is facing six years in prison.

Since being convicted, Macias has received the support of some politicians and activists. His appeal is being handled by Francisco José Sánchez, a pro bono lawyer who is also the founder of a small civil rights association.

Macias now holds Spanish citizenship, but he was born in Guadalajara and got his law degree in Mexico.

Since 2013, he said, he had mostly relied on unemployment benefits to get by. His joblessness and the time spent in the courtroom had taken a heavy toll on his family, he said.

“This is the kind of situation that can easily break up a family,” he said. “There have certainly been moments when my wife has questioned why I launched into a battle that has also put at risk the financial future of our children.”

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