Graft accusations spread through ranks of Andalusian Socialists

Judge accuses another former labor chef of corruption and embezzlement

A corruption scandal in Andalusia is threatening to claim fresh political scalps among Socialist leaders in the southern region.

The scam, which hit the headlines last month, allegedly revolved around a former regional labor chief, Javier Guerrero, who occupied his post for nearly 10 years. In statements to police last December, Guerrero admitted using public funds to award generous early-retirement packages to his friends and family, He drew the money from what he described as a "slush fund for reptiles," whose beneficiaries included his own mother-in-law.

The magistrate in charge of investigating the case, Mercedes Alaya, has formally accused Guerrero, who occupied the head labor post from 1999 to 2008. Guerrero came clean and was promptly expelled from the Socialist Party, which had hoped the buck stopped with him.

But last Wednesday Guerrero's successor Juan Márquez was accused, and has subsequently been dropped as mayoral candidate for Lucena del Puerto (Huelva) in upcoming May elections.

And on Monday, Alaya turned her attention to Antonio Fernández, labor chief between 2004 and 2010, sending him a fax that warned he too would be formally accused of graft, evasion and embezzlement.

The corrupt officials operated through labor force downsizing plans known as EREs. The regional government set up a fund containing close to 650,000 euros, ostensibly destined for financial companies in trouble. Some of these funds were then used to pay early-retirement packages to people who had never worked for the companies involved — presumably without the firms' knowledge.

Investigations have so far thrown up more than 50 cases of bogus early retirement and another 87 whose cases raised suspicions. Antonio Garrido Santoyo, a former Socialist party leader from Baeza (Jáen), received 78,000 euros from olive-oil company Coosur's lay-off plan, and also benefited from wholesale market Mercasevilla's ERE, despite having never done a day's work for either. Another beneficiary was a former representative at public-sector union UGT and personal friend to Guerrero, Juan Lanzas. He is under arrest after it was revealed that he, his wife and sister-in-law all collected funds from downsizing operations across the region.

While the majority of bogus retirement payouts were made under Guerrero's watch, Antonio Fernández signed off the agreement that created the 650,000-euro slush fund during his term as labor chief between 2004 and 2010.

The implication of Fernández, who served under former Andalusian premier chef Manuel Chaves and current incumbent José Antonio Griñan, could have wide-reaching political ramifications for the southern Socialists. For his part, Fernández has insisted he is "not worried in the slightest."

"I neither authorized nor approved nor was I aware of any of the issues that are coming to light," he said in reference to the bogus early-retirement payouts.

The scandal has not come at a good time for the Andalusian Socialists. A February poll predicted the PSOE would lose Andalusia, a traditional stronghold, in local elections next May.

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