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Bribe-Taking Scandal in Argentina

September 1, 2000

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) _ A federal judge said Friday there was growing evidence of bribe-taking in the Argentine Senate and announced he was deepening his investigation into a corruption scandal that has shaken the nation.

The disclosure by Federal Judge Carlos Liporaci, who has spent a week gathering testimony in the case, threatened to shake Argentina’s political elite and sidetrack efforts to put a sluggish economy back on track.

Liporaci said he was convinced bribes had been taken and assured the public that his investigation was just beginning.

``Some made payments, and others received them,″ he charged.

Saying his investigation would now escalate, he announced he was focusing in on seven senators from the opposition Peronist party and one from the governing Alliance coalition.

``This will not end here,″ said the judge, adding he would support moves to remove the senators’ congressional immunity from prosecution. Such a step would require congressional action.

All of the senators have rejected the accusations, and three of them later offered to voluntarily relinquish their congressional immunity in order to defend themselves.

In an apparent move to distance themselves from the scandal, three other senators who were not named by the judge offered to resign their posts in the chamber.

They included Eduardo Menem, brother of former president Carlos Menem. Indications were that the three senators’ districts would ask them to stay in their posts. ``I can say for sure, I know nothing of any irregularities,″ said Eduardo Menem.

The claims of bribe-taking, which have yet to be substantiated, have touched off a media frenzy in Argentina in recent days, amid the speculation that up to $200,000 had been paid out to sway passage of a controversial labor reform bill.

The bill, considered a centerpiece of President Fernando De la Rua’s efforts to revive Argentina’s faltering economy, won overwhelming approval in both of Argentina’s congressional houses last May.

It called for putting new flexibility into Argentina’s famously rigid labor laws in order to make the country’s economy internationally competitive. At the time, De la Rua hailed hard-won passage of the reform as a key step to ending a nearly 1 1/2-year recession, marked by 15 percent unemployment.

The accusations of vote buying have already affected the popularity of De la Rua’s nine-month-old administration, which took office for a four-year term on promises to stamp out corruption and provide honest government.

But Liporaci said Friday he had no concrete evidence of administration involvement in the scandal at this time.

De la Rua has encouraged officials to fully cooperate with investigators. He has indicated that if anyone in his administration were implicated in the scandal, they would be sacked immediately.

His vice president, Carlos Alvarez, has been a prime mover behind the investigation. Alvarez, who also serves as Senate president, appeared at the federal courthouse earlier this week to personally ask judges to look into the accusations.

``As president of the Senate _ and this is the same position as the president’s _ we are the first to want this to be cleared up,″ Alvarez told reporters.

The scandal comes at a crucial moment for South America’s second-largest economy, which some observers say may finally be on the upswing after a deep recession.

``If the situation is not resolved and the allegations continue, the economy could be damaged,″ said Economy Minister Jose Luis Machinea on Tuesday.

Observers said the scandal could hold up key legislation in the congress, especially the emergency economic bill awaiting deliberations next week.

``This is a real shame,″ said Pablo Donati, a 22-year-old student, who worried the scandal could drag on for months.

Pablo D’Angelo, a 40-year-old businessman, called the bickering a disgrace. Echoing the views of many on the streets, he said, ``Just when the country is facing major problems, they are fighting over this.″

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