JUDICIAL SCANDAL

The injudicious judge

Carlos Dívar resigned over allegations of misusing his expense account The former chief justice was brought down by his failure to gauge the public mood

Former Chief Justice Carlos Dívar leaves the Supreme Court.
Former Chief Justice Carlos Dívar leaves the Supreme Court.ULY MARTÍN (EL PAÍS)

After six weeks of mounting media and political pressure, on June 21, Carlos Dívar, Spain's Chief Justice and head of the country's judicial oversight council, resigned amid allegations that he used public money to pay for up to 32 private trips to Marbella and other destinations.

In standing down, the 70-year-old has refused to accept any misconduct, and told the 20 members of the General Council of the Judiciary (CGPJ), to which he was appointed president in 2008, that he was "unaware of any wrongdoing," instead saying the situation had become "unsustainable."

It is unlikely that Dívar will face charges over the affair: the day after he resigned, the Supreme Court made public the details of why it had refused to process the complaint made against its president by fellow Supreme Court judge and member of the CGPJ José Manuel Gómez Benítez, which accused Dívar of using his expense account to pay for private weekend trips.

The Supreme Court says that much of the information in the complaint against Dívar was based on reports published in EL PAÍS. "The publication of information in the media cannot be, in itself, a justification for beginning criminal proceedings, if the complaint does not offer rational and accessible information," says the Supreme Court's statement.

It adds that Dívar complied with the rules governing his expense account by providing bills.

The story dates back to May 8, when Judge Gómez Benítez accused Dívar of spending around 5,000 euros from his expense account on trips to Marbella's Puerto Banús, where he stayed at a luxury hotel and had a number of dinners in the company of an unnamed individual.

In standing down, the 70-year-old has refused to accept any misconduct

The Supreme Court dropped the investigation after ruling, among other things, that Dívar didn't personally profit from the trips, which they deemed official.

Under the current judiciary code, it was argued that he didn't have to give any public explanations for the excursions.

By early June, Dívar came under further pressure when it was revealed that between 2008 and March of this year he had spent more than 28,000 euros on 32 trips to Marbella and other destinations such as Bilbao, Palma de Mallorca and Valencia, where he stayed at high-end hotels and resorts.

Dívar refused to discuss the matter, issuing a press statement denying the accusations the next day. On May 21, the Supreme Court found that Dívar had not broken the rules, adding that he was not required to explain the nature of official visits.

There is anger the CGPJ can use public money for private use without scrutiny

Questioned by the media, some of the officials Dívar had supposedly met for business during his trips denied that such meetings had taken place or refused to confirm them.

The scandal comes just months after Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy announced legislation aimed at providing greater transparency in Spain's institutions.

Dívar initially tried to play down the accusations against him saying he was not required to make the details of his expenses public.

Surveys show that Spaniards' opinion of the country's institutions are at a very low ebb, with a widely held belief that the two main political parties have handled the economic crisis badly, and that they are more interested in their own survival.

At a time when one in four people is unemployed and Spain faces ever-mounting borrowing costs and deep cuts to public services, there is widespread anger that members of a body such as the CGPJ, the function of which is unclear to most people, are in a position to use public money for private use without any scrutiny.

Since the Dívar scandal broke, expense accounting rules have changed and judges are now required to give more detail about their official business trips.

The CGPJ last week for the first time published some details about its members' expenses, who spent some 830,000 euros on trips in 2011 - around 60 percent of its expenses budget, and equivalent to 37,000 euros per member.

Dívar's downfall comes as the CGPJ celebrates its bicentennial. Over the 200 years of its existence, he is the first chief justice or CGPJ president to have to step down from his position.

King Juan Carlos, who made a public apology after he was injured during a recent elephant hunting trip in Botswana, managed to avoid attending the 200th anniversary event on June 18. He excused himself while he traveled to Saudi Arabia to pay his condolences to the royal family for the death of Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz. Instead, the event was attended by Prince Felipe.

Dívar was appointed president of the CGPJ in 2008 by Socialist Party Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. He was seen as a relatively neutral figure in a body that over the last three decades has become increasingly politicized. The CGPJ's members are appointed by the two main parties.

During his 28 years in the High Court, the last seven of them as Chief Justice, Dívar had managed to keep out of the spotlight, pursuing a policy of keeping on friendly terms with his colleagues, regardless of their political affiliations.

Speculation as to the motive for Dívar's defenestration has suggested links to Baltasar Garzón. In 2006, when Baltasar Garzón was investigating connections between ETA and a number of organizations in the Basque Country, Benítez Gómez was negotiating on behalf of the then Socialist Party government with ETA.

Dívar is believed to have sent several letters to Garzón making clear that he believed that the government was trying to block the investigation into ETA's satellite organizations to make peace talks easier.

In February this year, Garzón, who has long-standing links to the Socialist Party, was barred from practicing for 11 years after he was found guilty of illegal wiretapping in the Gürtel kickbacks-for-contracts case involving several PP-run municipalities. Prior to that he had faced charges of overstepping his authority in ordering an investigation into crimes against humanity committed during the Civil War and the subsequent military regime of General Franco. The case was brought by far-right group Manos Limpias (or, Clean Hands) and Supreme Court Judge Luciano Varela helped the organization file the suit.

One rumor has it that Gómez Benítez has brought Dívar down in a bid to undermine the reputation of the Supreme Court and the CGPJ for its role in the Garzón affair.

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