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New allegations that Colombia prosecutor covered up bribes

November 14, 2018

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — A dramatic recording from beyond the grave has led to allegations that Colombia’s chief prosecutor — a key U.S. ally in the war on drugs — tried to cover up bribery payments that were part of Latin America’s biggest corruption scandal, prompting calls for his resignation.

The recording shows Nestor Martinez, then a legal counsel to Colombia’s biggest banking group, browbeating an internal auditor who reported finding likely bribe payments in a $2 billion highway project undertaken jointly with scandal-scarred Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht.

“You already got into this and you’re the only idiot who can finish it,” Martinez tells auditor Jorge Pizano in a profanity-laced conversation broadcast Monday by the Noticias Uno television program. Pizano admits he can’t be certain the suspicious payments were bribes, suggesting they may have even been outlays to paramilitary groups, and the conversation ends with Martinez telling Pizano not to discuss the matter with others.

The news program said Pizano, who had cancer, gave it the recording on the condition it not be aired until his death, which came last week. Authorities initially said he died of a heart attack, but that is now under review after his son died less than 72 hours later from exposure to cyanide contained in a bottle of flavored water found on his father’s desk.

The Pizano recording dates from June 2015, just as the scandal over bribery payments was starting to engulf Odebrecht — revelations that that would lead to criminal charges against scores of senior politicians and business executives across Latin America. In a 2016 plea agreement with the U.S. Justice Department, Odebrecht admitted to paying $788 million in bribes to win contracts in 12 nations — including $11.1 million in Colombia.

Martinez later became attorney general in 2016 despite complaints about his corporate background and years of service to the Aval Group, a New York Stock Exchange-listed banking conglomerate run by Colombia’s richest man that was allied with Odebrecht.

He formally recused himself when his office opened an investigation into the Aval Group-Odebrecht contracts in 2017, charged a deputy minister and former senator with taking bribes and issued arrest orders against several middlemen as well as the former head of the Aval unit involved in the consortium.

Martinez has since accused Odebrecht of shelling out almost $50 million in bribes in Colombia — or more than three times the amount the company acknowledged to U.S. authorities. Pizano was himself under investigation for an unrelated Odebrecht project.

Now the recording has revived calls for Martinez to quit.

The union representing thousands of judicial workers called on Tuesday for Martinez’s resignation, saying his apparent failure to denounce corruption he learned about in his law practice undermines his credibility as the standard bearer of Colombians’ fights for justice.

“Whoever doesn’t comprehend that sacred mission, or performs it with disregard, should step aside,” the group said in a statement.

Martinez through a spokesman declined a request for comment.

The 64-year-old, who also served in three previous Cabinet posts, was appointed to an autonomous, four-year term as Colombia’s top law enforcement official in 2016 and he’s been praised by U.S. officials who rely heavily on his agency’s cooperation in hundreds of drug investigations every year aimed at breaking the Colombian cartels who are the world’s top suppliers of cocaine.

Martinez’s cooperation has extended to ordering the controversial arrest on a U.S. drug warrant of a former guerrilla ideologue who negotiated the recent peace accord between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

U.S. Ambassador Kevin Whitaker in September called Colombia’s handling of the Odebrecht case “the best in the world, by far” and attributed its success to the dedication of Martinez’s office.

But his reputation took a hit when his top anticorruption prosecutor was arrested last year on a U.S. warrant for extorting bribes from politicians in exchange for soft-pedaling investigations against them.

And he has been fending off allegations that he is abusing his authority to protect his long-time employer by Luis Andrade, the former head of Colombia’s infrastructure agency.

For the past year, Andrade has been under house arrest on what he calls bogus charges that he favored Odebrecht’s co-conspirators, though he has not been accused of taking bribes himself.

He has called the charges payback by Martinez for his attempt at the outbreak of the scandal to invalidate the Aval-Odebrecht highway contract.

An American citizen who previously helped run McKinsey & Company’s consulting business in Latin America, he has enrolled a team of PR specialists and convinced a former U.S. senator to try to get the case dismissed.

But that effort has been complicated by the death of Pizano, who was supposed to be his key witness and is believed to have prepared detailed reports on corruption.

“Jorge Pizano was a courageous man who dared to render testimony against Odebrecht and Aval,” Andrade said. “Unfortunately, it cost him his life.”

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