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CORRUPTION

Ex-regional chief of Balearics given jail time in first Palma Arena trial

Jaume Matas found guilty of fraud, influence peddling, embezzlement, falsifying documents and dereliction of his public duties

The former regional premier of the Balearics, Jaume Matas.
The former regional premier of the Balearics, Jaume Matas.TOLO RAMÓN (EL PAÍS)

Former regional premier of the Balearics Jaume Matas was sentenced on Tuesday to six years in prison by the region’s High Court, after a three-judge panel convicted him of fraud, influence peddling, embezzlement, falsifying documents and dereliction of his public duties for paying nearly 500,000 euros to businesses set up by a former columnist at the Spanish daily El Mundo.

The ex-newspaper journalist Antonio Alemany, who wrote glowing articles about Matas’ administration, was given a jail sentence of three years and nine months in the case.

Anti-corruption prosecutors, who had called for higher sentences, demanded that both Matas and Alemany immediately be sent to prison. Matas has been out on 2.5-million-euro bail since probable cause to go to trial was found against him in 2010. His palatial home in Palma de Mallorca, which is reportedly worth four million euros and was used as collateral for a loan to pay his bail, will go on the auction block on April 25 given his failure to pay interest on that loan.

Matas, once a highly influential member of the Popular Party (PP), is the fourth regional premier since democracy was restored in Spain in 1975 to be given a jail sentence. The judges’ panel also barred him from holding any type of elected office for nine years after he is released from prison.

Matas, who governed the Balearic Islands from 1996 to 1999 and from 2003 to 2007, and in the interim period served as environment minister in the government of former Prime Minister José María Aznar, will also lose all the benefits and honors he earned while in office.

The High Court also handed down an 18-month jail sentence to Matas’ former director of communications Joan Martorell, and gave another co-defendant, Miguel Romero, head of the public relations firm Nimbus, a term of 13 months and 15 days.

Dulce Linares and María Umbert, both former chiefs of staff to Matas, were acquitted.

This is the first of 26 cases that Matas faces in the so-called Palma Arena corruption investigation. The convictions are seen as a blow to the ruling Popular Party, which is still being plagued by a series of corruption cases.

Soraya Rodríguez, parliamentary spokeswoman for the Socialist Party (PSOE), said the PP was obliged to give the country a full explanation following Matas’ convictions.

But Alfonso Alonso, the PP parliamentary whip, said Matas was no longer part of the party structure. He reminded reporters that the former Balearic chief followed the party’s internal “code of good practices” and gave up all his positions following his indictments.

For his part, Joan Tardà, of the Catalan Republican leftist bloc ERC, said: “Those who do bad things must pay for them.”

The case began after auditors found that a sports complex that Matas budgeted at 44 million euros actually cost taxpayers 100 million. Subsequent inquiries into the dealings within Matas’ administration later yielded enough evidence to launch an offshoot investigation into King Juan Carlos’ son-in-law Iñaki Urdangarin, who is expected to face trial on four counts relating to an alleged scheme to divert public money he received from the Balearic Islands to organize a series of tourism and sports conferences into offshore accounts.

Alemany would write Matas’ speeches as well as penning fawning articles in El Mundo about his administration. He was later given public money to set up a Balearic Islands news services and website that was pro-Matas.

According to the ruling, Matas was “interested” in “contracting” Alemany’s services to conduct a series of “socio-political reports \[that indirectly, because of the leanings toward the Popular Party, was going to favor the party and the Balearic chief\].” The panel said that to “guarantee such objectives,” Matas came up “with a strategy” in which he used public money to ensure the positive coverage.

Operation Palma de Arena was initiated when prosecutors began sifting through evidence in a real estate corruption inquiry known as the Andratx case in 2006. In 2009, Matas, who was living with his family in Washington DC, was indicted on multiple charges related to Palma de Arena.

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