Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Conde Affair: Business corruption

The Panama papers continue to supply sensational reading. Spain's society - politics, royalty, business, the arts, sports - is implicated. The names provide a who's who of the county's VIP establishment: Jóse Manuel Soria, the acting industry, energy and tourism minister; Pilar de Borbón, the King's aunt; Oleguer Pujol, son of Jordi, the former president of Catalonia; Francisco and Juan José Franco, great grandsons of the dictator; Pedro Almodóvar, film director; Lionel Messi, footballer.

Last week, when the leak was becoming a tidal wave, someone was invited onto Spanish television to discuss tax havens. He said that demagogues claim that anyone with a company registered in a tax haven is a "common criminal". There is a great deal of ignorance, he went on. These companies are audited and their taxes are paid. It was "outrageous" to condemn someone just for having a company in countries with tax advantages superior to others. He also suggested that it was "ridiculous" that Spain did not have its own tax haven. He ventured that it could be the Canaries.

A few days later, the person who had said all this was arrested. He is Mario Conde, businessman, politician and an ex-con who now - if perhaps only temporarily - finds himself once more behind bars. Conde is not cited in the Panama papers, but his arrest, coinciding as it does with the leaks, has merely served to crank up the level of outrage. Conde might believe that it is outrageous to attack those who seek advantages in tax havens, but it is far from only demagogues who have been drawing their conclusions. The outrage is great, its timing possibly crucial. The whiff of another type of corruption could yet influence the interminable goings-on with forming a new government or a second election.

Spain's society, given its love affair with football, would probably be unmoved by mention of Messi, who has after all already had his brushes with the tax man. Members of the arts world might likewise be looked upon sympathetically. Politicians and businesspeople, however, are different. And into the roll of business dishonour that there already is comes Conde. Again.

In 1997, he was originally sentenced to six years in prison. In 2001, he was sentenced to fourteen years. The following year, the Supreme Court upped this to twenty years. He went to jail but was released in 2008.

At the heart of this was the so-called "caso Banesto". This erupted in 1993. It was to do with a web of corporate corruption at the bank. Its president was Mario Conde. The actual amount that Conde and others were said to have embezzled from Banesto varies according to reports, but the figure of 26 million euros (its equivalent in pesetas at the time) is common. And his arrest centres on an anti-corruption prosecution investigation that he had been involved in repatriating to Spain more than 13 million euros.

This amount, so it is claimed, had been coming back to Spain from overseas accounts, in particular ones in Switzerland and London, in small amounts - some 3,000 euros at a time - since 1999. Seemingly, it was a very much larger sum, 600,000 euros, that alerted interest. This was a transfer from Switzerland to La Caixa Bank in 2014. It was the bank itself which, in effect, blew the whistle as it had queried the legitimacy of the transfer. A judge at the Spanish High Court, Santiago Pedraz, is now investigating a total of 15 people, including various Conde family members.

Conde always protested his innocence over the Banesto affair. It even found its way to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. There again, Conde had a record of having influential friends. They included, at the time when the Bank of Spain had to intervene with Banesto, the prime minister, Felipe González, and leader of the opposition, José María Aznar. There was also Adolfo Suárez, the man who led Spain's transition to democracy.

Judge Pedraz and the prosecution service are looking into the network of 40 companies that the Conde family had established. It is this web of businesses, plus the offshore element, that has echoes not just of the Panama papers but also the Nóos affair.

Conde is one in that roll of business dishonour. Others include Rodrigo Rato, ex-minister, ex-IMF, ex-banker; Gerardo Díaz Ferrán, ex-president of the Spanish equivalent of the CBI, co-founder of the giant Grupo Marsans; Ángel de Cabo, Díaz Ferrán's Mr. Fix-It, who headed what now seems the mysterious acquisition of the Hotetur chain (Alcudia's Bellevue and all). There are others. 

The Conde affair, this Conde Nasty, just makes the stench more malodorous. It fans the flames of the fire that Podemos, among others, has started, one that has engulfed a society previously only too willingly apathetic in shrugging a collective shoulder and saying that's Spain. There's outrage all right.

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