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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Argentina’s most powerful politician found guilty of fraud

By Ana LankesS and Natalie Alcoba

Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, a political titan in Argentina, was found guilty on Tuesday and sentenced to six years in prison and banned from holding public office for a fraud scheme that directed public roadworks contracts to a family friend while she was the first lady and president.

The verdict was a major blow to Kirchner, the current vice president and a deeply polarizing figure who has helped split Argentina between those who favor her and her leftist movement, called Kirchnerismo, and those who say she has helped ruin a country that has struggled with high inflation, poverty and failed economic policies.

The six-year sentence was less than the 12 years that had been sought by prosecutors. However, neither the sentence nor the ban is firm until all of her appeals are used up. Most likely, the case will eventually be heard by Argentina’s Supreme Court.

Until then, Kirchner can continue to hold office.

After the verdict, a furious Kirchner announced she would step out of politics after her current term as vice president concluded at the end of next year.

“I’m not going to be a candidate for anything,” she said in an hourlong video address from her office in the National Congress where she is also a senator. “Not for president, not for senator, my name won’t be on any ballot.”

Without a seat in Congress, Kirchner would lose the immunity that protects her from arrest, a fact she was completely clear on. “Put me in jail,” she said.

“This is a parallel state, and a mafia,” she added.

A panel of three judges in Buenos Aires, the capital, rendered the verdict on a public broadcast after a three-year trial in which the Kirchner was accused of steering hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer-funded contracts to a business associate to build roads in Patagonia, on the tip of South America.

The panel found her not guilty of a second charge of directing an “illicit association” that oversaw that kickbacks scheme.

“We are certain” the ruling said, that “an extraordinary fraudulent maneuver took place that harmed the pecuniary interests of the national public administration under the terms and conditions established by criminal law.”

Kirchner has spent 30 years in the public eye, including as a first lady, president and currently as a senator and the vice president. During that time, she has been investigated before on roughly a dozen charges, mostly related to corruption, though four cases have been dismissed and she has been acquitted in two others. This was the first investigation to make it to trial.

Polls that measure the approval rating of potential presidential candidates had recently given her roughly 29% support among voters. Tuesday’s guilty verdict may have intensified the challenges she already faced appealing to a wider audience before next year’s presidential election, according to analysts.

But it also ignited her base of supporters, thousands of whom streamed into the capital city Tuesday.

Twelve other people were also accused in the corruption case including Lázaro Báez, the Kirchner associate who received the roadworks contracts, and two former Kirchnerista government ministers who have been convicted in other corruption cases.

Báez was found guilty of fraud and sentenced to six years in prison. He was already serving a 12-year sentence for money laundering in a separate case. José López, a former public works secretary, was also sentenced to six years in prison for fraud and banned from holding public office

The kickbacks scheme that Kirchner was found guilty of played out in the province of Santa Cruz during the 12 years that the Kirchners ran the country: Cristina Kirchner’s late husband, Néstor Kirchner, served as president from 2003 to 2007 before her terms from 2007 to 2015.

Santa Cruz has always been their political stronghold: Néstor Kirchner was born in the capital, Rio Gallegos, and served as governor of the province between 1991 and 2003. His sister, Alicia Kirchner, is the governor today.

The focus of. Kirchner’s trial has largely been 51 roadworks contracts that were awarded to companies linked to Báez, who went from being a bank employee in Santa Cruz to forming a construction company in the days before Néstor Kirchner became president in 2003. The prosecution said that from 2003 to 2015 the scheme defrauded the Argentine state of more than 5 billion pesos, or about $926 million, according to officials.

The contracts were often awarded at inflated prices, went over budget or granted other special considerations, according to the prosecution. Almost half of the road projects were never finished.

“These were systematic acts of corruption promoted and maintained by the highest political leaders in the country,” said Diego Luciani, the lead prosecutor, during his closing remarks earlier this year.

The evidence presented during the trial included WhatsApp messages between López, the ex-public works secretary, Báez and the president of one of his construction companies.

The prosecution said the messages revealed a plan to hide evidence in the waning days of the Kirchner administration in 2015, by delivering final payments on contracts to Báez, laying off his employees and abandoning roadworks projects.

Some messages include references to “La Señora” who had to “make decisions.” The prosecution contended that “La Señora” was a reference to Cristina Kirchner, though she was never mentioned by name.

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