Lawmakers Await Figueres’ Arrival
MEMBERS of the Legislative Assembly this weekissued an ultimatum to former Costa Rican PresidentJosé María Figueres, currently in Switzerland where hehas resided for the past several years as the director ofthe World Economic Forum.Legislators threatened to call in national and internationalpolice if Figueres had not appeared before theassembly by yesterday afternoon to answer to allegationsof corruption.However, Figueres sent a letter to the assemblypromising to return in early December to testify.Legislators said yesterday they have given him untilDec. 9 to appear.Figueres, who was President from 1994 to 1998, isone of several former government officials alleged to have received questionable payments connectedto government contracts with foreigncompanies.Investigation of these payments hasresulted in the imprisonment of two ex-Presidents and other public officials aspreventive measures, and apparentlyprompted some of the alleged recipients tofile corrected tax returns this month.ONE alleged source of the payments isParis-based global telecommunicationsgiant Alcatel, which obtained a lucrativecontract from the Costa Rican ElectricityInstitute (ICE) in 2001.Government officials, including formerICE board members and ex-PresidentMiguel Ángel Rodríguez (1998-2002), areamong the alleged recipients of the Alcatel“prize” money.In the other major corruption case,companies linked to the Costa Rican firmCorporación Fischel allegedly paid “commissions”to officials of the SocialSecurity System (Caja), which providesmost Costa Ricans with cradle-to-gravehealth care, when it received a medicalequipment contract partially funded with a$32 million loan from the government ofFinland.Former President Rafael Ángel Calderón(1990-1994) has been accused of mastermindingthe distribution of $9 million in“commissions.” Although Calderón admittedto receiving more than $500,000, he saidit was for “correct acts” (TT, Sept. 10).CALDERÓN and Rodríguez are bothbeing held in private cells in the penitentiaryLa Reforma in Alajuela, northeast ofSan José.Calderón’s nine-month preventive detentionorderwas reduced to twomonths when heappealed the orderlast week, citingmedical problemsas a reason heshould be allowedto return home.Rodríguez alsoappealed, but hissix-month preventive-detention orderhas not been altered.Former Caja chief Eliseo Vargas, whostepped down in April in connection withthe allegations against him, was conditionallyreleased from prison last week aftercooperating with authorities (TT, Nov. 12).Vargas helped push the Finland Projectthrough the Legislative Assembly when hewas a legislator in 2001 (TT, May 14).MANY of the suspects in the corruptioncases may also face charges of tax evasionif the Prosecutor’s Office investigationproves they received the alleged payments.This month, Figueres paid ¢67.2 million(approximately $149,000) andCalderón ¢40.3 million ($89,000) in taxeson previously unreported income, LaNación reported this week.Roberto Hidalgo, former advisor to bothAlcatel and Figueres, also paid taxes, alongwith Hidalgo’s advisor and former NationalLiberation Party (PLN) chairwomanCarmen Valverde, and Rolando Laclé, a legislatorwith the Social Christian Unity Party(PUSC). Both Valverde and Laclé are linkedto alleged payments from Alcatel, accordingto the daily, but neither is a suspect in theICE-Alcatel case.THE total paid this month by all fivewas ¢241.3 million ($536,000). Figueres’brother, Mariano Figueres, made the paymenton the former head of state’s behalf.In September, tax authorities launchedinvestigations of possible tax evasion by27 people involved in the Prosecutor’sOffice investigations, to determinewhether the payments they allegedlyreceived from foreign companies weredeclared to tax authorities.A person convicted of tax evasionfaces 5-10 years in jail and would alsohave to pay the amount due, plus interestsaccumulated since the date on which itshould have been paid, and an additional25% of the amount as a fine (TT, Nov. 5).POLITICIANS and the media beganpressuring Figueres to return to Costa Ricaas soon as reports surfaced that he acceptedsome $906,000 in payments fromAlcatel in return for consulting servicesrelated to the ICE contract.Figueres admitted to receiving the paymentsbut maintains they are legitimate.Nonetheless, they violated the regulationsof the World Economic Forum, promptinghis resignation from the director post lastmonth (TT, Oct. 29).When legislators first asked him toexplain to a legislative commission the circumstancesunder which he received theAlcatel funds, Figueres offered to testifyvia videoconference, a suggestion that wasrejected by assembly members.He informed legislators he wouldreturn to Costa Rica “as soon as possible,”but that international commitments,including a speaking engagement at aWorld Conservation Union (IUCN) conferencein Thailand, prevented him fromreturning immediately.Figueres made the announcement via anote to legislator Luis Gerardo Villanueva(PLN), the head of the Legislative Assembly’sPublic Expense Control Committee.When an IUCN representative toldlegislators Figueres was not a scheduledspeaker, legislators accused Figueres ofbeing “evasive,” moved the deadline forhis appearance to yesterday, and threatenedto involve the Public SecurityMinistry, the daily reported.JUDICIAL Branch spokeswomanSandra Castro told The Tico Times thisweek the Prosecutor’s Office is “analyzinginformation” in the Figueres case and hasnot declared him a suspect or requestedthat he testify. She confirmed legislatorscan involve the police in their attempt toforce Figueres to return, although sheemphasized the Judicial Branch has noplans for such action.In the case of Rodríguez, who was livingin Washington, D.C., as the newSecretary General of the Organization ofAmerican States (OAS) when allegationsagainst him surfaced in October, theJudicial Branch issued an internationalcapture order to ensure his return to CostaRica (TT, Oct. 15).FIGUERES’ mother, Karen Olsen,who served in the Legislative Assemblywhile her son was President (1994-1998),returned to Costa Rica Nov. 12 via JuanSantamaría International Airport amid aswarm of reporters and a jeering crowd.The Legislative Assembly has calledfor Olsen, the widow of legendary threetimeformer President José “Pepe”Figueres, to appear Thursday to explainher participation in a controversial $40million Spanish loan to the Caja, whichshe signed as a witness.The circumstances surrounding theSpanish loan have been questioned because,like the loan from the government ofFinland, the Spanish loan was used to buylow-quality medical equipment that may nothave corresponded to the Caja’s needs (TT,Oct. 8).MEANWHILE, Rodríguez, who lastweek made headlines from his cell at LaReforma when he spent an afternoon helpinga worker paint the cell walls (TT, Nov. 12),wrote letters to Supreme Court presidentLuis Paulino Monge and the president of thecourt’s Constitutional Chamber, LuisFernando Solano, to complain about theProsecutor’s Office leaking information tothe press.The letters said officials who turn overcourt documents and other information tothe media are interfering with due processand allowing the media to manipulate publicopinion, La Nación reported.THE scandals have seriously damagedthe reputations of Costa Rica’s twomain political parties, the NationalLiberation Party, which “Pepe” Figueresfounded and his son was a member of,and the Social Christian Unity Party,which Rodríguez was a member of andCalderón founded.Calderón is the son of former PresidentRafael Ángel Calderón Guardia (1940-44). Ironically, one of Calderón Guardia’sgreatest achievements is helping to createsocialized health care in Costa Rica.Figueres’ father, “Pepe” Figueres(1948-49, 1953-58, and 1970-74), abolishedthe nation’s army in 1948 and createdthe country’s current Constitution in 1949.
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