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Clean-up of graft: an urgent task

The courts, and Catalan politicians, must stem the growing blemish of corruption

A few days after suffering an electoral débâcle, the public image of the Catalan Socialist Party (PSC) has been shaken by the emergence of a case of town-planning graft in the city of Sabadell, which has involved the arrest of 12 persons and the official targeting of 26 others, including the mayor of the city and a ranking party official, Manuel Bustos.

The investigation is centered on the existence of a network organized to collect “commissions” on the awarding of public works contracts. According to the Anti-corruption Prosecutor’s Office, the network may have demanded of construction companies the payment of 120,000 euros for initial submission of tenders, and then, a commission of between three and four percent of the cost of the works. The names mentioned include those of several relatives of the mayor, other Socialist officials and a former Popular Party (PP) city councilor.

The emergence of this new corruption scandal onto the Catalan political scene ought to help alert the public to a phenomenon that is too widespread. The suspicions that commissions are being charged for the awarding of public works has been hovering over Catalan politics ever since the then-premier Pasqual Maragall, in a parliamentary squabble with today’s incumbent Artur Mas, suggested that CiU charged kickbacks of three percent.

That accusation led to nothing, but since that time several cases have reached the courts. Outstanding among them are the Pretoria and the Palau cases, implicating official and leaders of both parties. That of the Palau de Música auditorium began as an affair of embezzlement on the part of its president, but has branched out into a case of illegal financing of the conservative Catalan nationalist party Convergència, by means of kickbacks. The exasperating slowness in the operation of the courts causes these cases to drag on forever, so that, as new scandals appear before the previous ones have come to trial, a demoralized public has the impression that no one is capable of curtailing corruption.

The charging of kickbacks, or “commissions,” is not only an affront to public morality. It also has devastating effects on public trust in office-holders, and on the quality of public management. The parties that collect kickbacks are in a position of comparative advantage over those that behave honestly; and wherever there is illegal financing, there may also be illicit enrichment of the persons involved.

Kickbacks corrupt the system of awarding of works and services since when crooked procedures are involved, those who receive the contracts are often not those who most merit them, but those most lacking in scruples, who smooth over their relative lack of competence with bribes and commissions. Once corruption is there, it tends to stay, thus consolidating an unfair, inefficient system, and involving a huge excess of cost, which the taxpayers have to support.

It is the job of the courts to clarify these cases, but the containment of corruption has to be the first point on a really indispensable agenda for the regeneration of political life in our country.

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