San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Calderón Kickback Trial Underway

The state opened its case this week against Rafael Angel Calderón Jr., the first former president to be tried on corruption charges in Costa Rica.

Calderón, president from 1990 to 1994, is accused of accepting kickbacks for helping a Finnish medical equipment firm sell goods worth $39.5 million to the Caja, the national public health care system.

“Finally, the truth can come out,” said Calderón, who maintains his innocence and has expressed interest in running for president in 2010 on the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC) ticket. “The ruling will bring peace to our household.”

Calderón was arrested in October 2004 and spent five months in Costa Rica’s toughest prison, La Reforma, before he was formally accused of embezzlement and corruption in March 2007.

Calderón, a lawyer, has admitted to receiving $520,000 from Walter Reiche, then president of the pharmacy Fischel, a Costa Rican representative of the Finnish firm, Instrumentarium Medko Medical. But he said the money was payment for legal consulting services.

State prosecutors are accusing seven others, including Reiche and other Fischel and Caja executives, for helping to arrange the contract and accepting kickbacks.

“It’s a very important case,” said lead prosecutor Juan Carlos Cubillolead. “It establishes that any citizen who violates the law will face trial.”

Hidden bank dealings in Miami, Panama, the Bahamas and Costa Rica form the cornerstone of the state’s case, Cubillo said.

Defense lawyers argued Wednesday that the bank records were obtained illegally, and judges suspended arguments for two days so state lawyers could prepare a response.

About 300 witnesses will testify before the three judges hearing the case in a trial that could last up to 18 months, according to estimates by lawyers. Arguments take place every day, Monday through Thursday, from 8 a.m. to around 5 p.m., with two hours for lunch. On Friday, arguments end at noon.

The eight defendants also face two civil suits. The Caja is seeking $46 million because, lawyers claim, the scheme eroded the Caja’s credibility and cost the system millions in unnecessary equipment purchases.

The Government Attorney’s Office is seeking $89 million to compensate the state for the deterioration in its image.

“All Costa Ricans have the right to live in a country free of corruption,” said state attorney Gilberth Calderón, no relation to the defendant. “When public officials engage in acts of corruption … society loses faith in the democratic system.”

Calderón’s presidential ambitions strike some PUSC members as gutsy, given that charges against him and other party heavyweights nearly brought PUSC to its deathbed.

In 2006, the party lost 14 seats in the Legislative Assembly.

Calderón remains unpopular, too. Some 49 percent of Ticos have a negative opinion of him, while just 32 percent see him favorably, according to a recent CID-Gallup poll conducted for the daily La República.

In a spirited campaign to woo the public, Calderón has hired a public relations firm to release daily statements about the trial. He launched a Web site devoted to his defense and proclaimed his innocence during a 10-minute speech broadcast on three TV channels before the trial.


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