THE saga of government corruption scandals that broke in late 2004 continued to unfold this year, with every Costa Rican President since 1990 being investigated for the alleged acceptance of illegal or unethical payments.
The year began with the news that the Prosecutor’s Office had reopened its investigation of foreign donations to President Abel Pacheco’s 2002 presidential campaign. Prosecutors also continued to look into alleged payments by foreign companies with government contracts in Costa Rica to former Presidents Rafael Angel Calderón, Jr. (1990-1994), José María Figueres (1994-1998) and Miguel Angel Rodríguez (1998-2002). Rodríguez, who in October 2004 stepped down from a month-long stint as Central America’s first Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS) to face the corruption charges against him, is accused of accepting more than $1 million in “prizes” from global telecommunications firm Alcatel in connection with a lucrative contract granted during his presidency.
Calderón allegedly masterminded the distribution of $9.2 million in illegal payments linked to a $39 million medical equipment purchase by the Social Security System (Caja) from a Finnish medical supply company.
Figueres, who resides in Europe, declined to return to Costa Rica this year – after being asked by the Legislative Assembly on four occasions, most recently in February – to explain why he had accepted funds from Alcatel.
Chief Prosecutor Francisco Dall’Anese, when questioned by disgruntled members of the Legislative Assembly’s Public Expenditures Commission Feb. 18 about potential ways to extradite Figueres and speed up the other corruption cases, urged patience and said the legal process can’t be hurried. He admitted to being worried about leaks of information from the Prosecutor’s Office – something ex- President Rodríguez also complained about this year – and said the matter was under investigation.
In March, Rodríguez’s family welcomed him back to his home in the western suburb of Escazú with a steak dinner after a judge agreed to let him leave the San José-area penitentiary La Reforma and return to house arrest because of health considerations, following payment of ¢250 million ($537,000) in bail. Five days later on March 23, Calderón’s preventive prison order was commuted to house arrest, and he, too, left La Reforma to return to his eastern San José home.
In April, Rodríguez was accused of pressuring legislators in their selection of a new judge for the Sala III, the highest penal court in the country, which could eventually make a decision on the corruption charges against him and Calderón.
May saw three investigative journalists from La Nación honored in both Mexico City and Madrid for their work in uncovering the corruption cases that implicated the three ex-Presidents and other public officials.
Later that month, President Abel Pacheco, who had presented himself as an enemy of corruption, went on the defensive amid criticisms he accepted free flights, lifetime memberships to a luxury resort and other perks that allegedly violated a decree he signed upon taking office, as well as the new Anti-Corruption Law passed in late 2004. The President soon returned the memberships and apologized for the airline tickets, and the Prosecutor’s Office began investigating whether he had violated the law.
Though he accused the press of mounting a campaign against him to cast doubt on his integrity, Pacheco admitted his actions were “definitely not good.”
With his anti-corruption efforts under scrutiny, Pacheco traveled in economy class to a meeting in Guatemala in late May – a decision that prompted some legislators to criticize the anti-corruption legislation.
They called for reforms, saying the law is “dangerous,” “ridiculous,” “hastily passed,” and goes too far in its requirement that public officials must declare all their assets. Several high-level government officials apparently agreed, and their resignations prompted legislators and analysts to voice concern that the law will scare qualified people out of government posts.
Meanwhile, in an exclusive interview with The Tico Times, Rodríguez also criticized the media for their coverage of his case. He insisted he is innocent of the corruption charges against him, and said his ordeal has taught him the value of love.
In October, Rodríguez and Calderón were released from house arrest within five days of each other, after nearly a year in detention. Both are prohibited from leaving the country and must sign in with judicial authorities every two weeks. The judges’ reasons for ending the detention orders were not made public.
After his release, Calderón told the press he is innocent and hopes to return to politics once his name has been cleared.