There are few things as disheartening at a time of rising unemployment and spending cuts than to see public officials who have stolen taxpayers’ money avoiding their due punishment. For this reason, the Barcelona regional High Court has thrown out a plea bargain agreement between three defendants in an illegal financing scheme in Catalonia’s Unió Democràtica de Catalunya (UDC) party that would have allowed them to avoid jail time.
Jail sentences should serve “to dissuade all citizens and politicians who might feel tempted” by corruption, the panel of judges wrote in their ruling.
The 14-year so-called Pallerols inquiry involved the embezzlement of European Union (EU) funding that was destined to go to job training programs for the unemployed. Under Spanish law, defendants who are sentenced to less than two years can normally avoid going to jail if the court agrees to this option.
As well as helping the three guilty men avoid jail time, the plea bargain was aimed at preventing Unió’s leader, Josep Antoni Duran Lleida from having to testify in court. Unió forms part of the ruling CiU center-right nationalist bloc in Catalonia.
The annulment of the deal, which the court is legally entitled to do, is the right decision, pointing out that suspending the prison sentences sends the message that politicians and other powerful figures are “virtually immune” from prosecution, describing this as “obscene” at a time when Spain is awash with corruption cases.
The Pallerols case has undermined public confidence in the justice system. Andorran businessman Fidel Pallerols; the former director general of Catalonia’s labor department, Lluis Gavaldà: and former Unió party secretary Vicenç Gavaldà were finally found guilty of diverting more than 388,000 euros of EU funds to the Unió party.
The court said that the businessman and former Unió party officials “orchestrated a scheme directed to fatten the war chest” of the Christian Democratic affiliate party that is now headed by Duran.
Not sending them to prison would undoubtedly be seen by the general public as proof that there is one law for the wealthy and powerful, and another for everybody else.
Which still leaves the matter of Duran Lleida’s refusal to testify in court, as well as his earlier pledge that he would stand down if his party were found to have engaged in wrongdoing.