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article image'Corruption notebooks' put heat on Argentina's ex-president Kirchner

By AFP     Aug 3, 2018 in World

A web of graft allegations stemming from the period former presidents Cristina Kirchner and her husband ruled Argentina became even stickier this week when "corruption notebooks" detailing secretive cash deliveries came to light.

Sixteen former government officials and business people have been arrested on criminal association charges in what prosecutors said was a suspected bribery operation totaling $160 million. More arrests have not been ruled out.

The notebooks were kept by Oscar Centeno, a driver who worked for a public works official.

In them, he meticulously recorded the amounts of cash paid, where briefcases of money were picked up and delivered to in Buenos Aires, how much the briefcases weighed, and information suggesting the pay-offs were to secure public works contracts.

The Kirchners' residence in Buenos Aires and the presidential palace and residence they inhabited figured among the addresses listed.

The contents of eight notebooks were divulged to the public this week by the newspaper La Nacion, which received them from an unidentified source months ago and which eventually turned copies of the pages over to prosecutors.

On Friday, a special financial investigations unit said it was examining $65 million in Miami investments in the United States made by Nestor Kirchner's late private secretary to see if there were links with the payments detailed in the notebooks.

- Driver cooperating -

The entries by Centeno date from 2003 to 2015, covering the leftwing presidencies of Nestor Kirchner, who died of a heart attack in 2010, and his wife and successor Cristina Kirchner, who was in office from 2007.

Cristina Kirchner, now a senator and a critic of current conservative President Mauricio Macri, is already fighting a slew of corruption accusations. The "corruption notebooks" will add to the judicial scrutiny she is facing.

On August 13, Kirchner is due to appear before the judge running the inquiry into the notebooks case.

As a senator, she is immune from arrest. But she can still be put on trial if sufficient evidence exists for prosecution, and sentenced if found guilty.

The judge has asked the senate to lift her immunity so her home and office can be searched.

So far, Kirchner has issued no public comment on the scandal. Her supporters claim she is being persecuted for political reasons.

Centeno, meanwhile, was brought before the judge on Thursday. According to reports, he has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors, and has authenticated the notebooks.

The notebooks, said Leandro Despouy, a former government auditor general, "implicate a large number of businessmen, not just government officials."

The case could end up being as big in Argentina as the ground-shaking "Car Wash" corruption investigation in neighboring Brazil, which has ensnared and sullied many prominent members of the Brazilian political and business elite, he said.

He also said that the Argentine business figures arrested in the "corruption notebooks" scandal might declare themselves victims of extortion by the Kirchners' governments.

- Latest scandal -

One of the ex-officials arrested was Robert Baratta, who used to be number two in the planning ministry responsible for doling out public works contracts. Centeno worked as his driver.

One of the businessmen detained is Javier Sanchez Caballero, former managing director of IECSA, a construction firm owned by Macri's cousin and which is part of the Macri Group, Macri's family-run conglomerate.

The revelations and arrests have deepened the cynicism the Argentine public holds for its government and for many of its high-profile business leaders.

They have read reports of several other corruption scandals exposed in their Latin American country, and this latest one adds to an already long list.

One of the more memorable recent cases was that of an ex-minister, Jose Lopez, who was caught red-handed flinging 160 suitcases and bags stuffed with cash and jewels -- more than $9 million worth -- over the wall of an old monastery outside the capital.

His trial, and that of an elderly nun suspected to be his accomplice, began in June and is expected to go to the end of the year.

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