VIP treatment at the taxpayers’ expense

The Club de Campo Villa in Madrid is funded with public money but caters to the elite Politicians, royals and hangers-on pay a tiny fee to use its lavish installations

The golf course at the Club de Campo Villa in Madrid, whose 22,000 members pay just a symbolic fee.
The golf course at the Club de Campo Villa in Madrid, whose 22,000 members pay just a symbolic fee.CARLOS ROSILLO (EL PAÍS)

The Club de Campo Villa in Madrid is municipally owned and has a waiting list of thousands of people and several decades. Despite being financed with public money, its 22,000 members pay only a symbolic fee for services and installations, which for the majority of the population would normally carry a prohibitive cost - unless, that is, you have a VIP calling card.

There are plenty of people that have such a card legitimately because of the post that they hold - deputies in the Madrid city administration, the regional premier, sponsors and so on. But there is also a long list of people with more dubious credentials that were still able to gain access for themselves and a guest to the exclusive installations of the Club de Campo Villa in 2011, when the current justice minister, Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón, was mayor of Madrid.

Former Popular Party (PP)treasurer Luis Bárcenas, now under investigation for alleged fraud, was a member, as was ex-Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero's assistant. Also on the rolls of the club was the sister of former regional premier Esperanza Aguirre; business leaders; Princess Elena's horse riding instructor and a personal friend of the royal daughter; Mariano Rajoy's brother; the entire family of a pretender to the defunct French throne; and a group of influential journalists. The total number of VIP cards available is around 650, the majority of which are slightly more difficult to justify.

The difference between holding a VIP card or otherwise is easier to explain: a normal citizen of Madrid can go to the Club de Campo Villa and use the covered pool, while his or her guest can work out in the gym before joining for a dip. Total cost: 172 euros. With the benefit of a VIP card, the price is just 11.50 euros. Both the pool and the gym were constructed using public money.

Jousting with the courts for a gym

In 1984, the Club de Campo Villa de Madrid, an elitist retreat set up at the beginning of the 20th century, passed into the hands of City Hall, which owns 51 percent of its capital. The rest is divided between National Heritage and the Royal Equestrian Society.

Running costs at the club are covered by its income but the city authorities paid for the construction of new facilities and the modernization of others. In 2012 one million euros of public money was set aside for the club, In 2011, 3.4 million euros, and the year before that, 3.6 million. Between 2004 and 2009 the club received 6.3 million euros to build the Olympic swimming pool and the gym, neither of which are licensed for use. In fact, the entire club lacks an operating license, and some of its installations may have been built without planning permission - but an investigation into this was shelved last month after four years due to the statute of limitations.

The construction of the pavilion and gym was brought to the attention of the courts in a private lawsuit, but they ruled that there was no evidence of misuse of public funds.

The public prosecutor considered it proven that the club received a subsidy in 2007 to build a fencing strip to international tournament standards. However, the club built a room without the necessary dimensions - or any seats for spectators - and turned it into a gym instead. The following year, it received 500,000 euros in public funds for sports equipment. The courts did not act as it was considered there was no wrongdoing as the end use of the building remained sport-based. In his report, the prosecutor noted that "members had been asking" for a gym.

VIP cards are available on request and granted in a discretionary manner by the club. Serving government members at a national and regional level have the right to one, even if some of them have never even used theirs.

Normal citizens must pay 700 euros a year for membership, a 2,230-euro registration fee and 1,350 euros to register a spouse. Non-members have to stump up 36 euros just to get in on Saturdays, and 63 euros if they actually want to use any of the installations. A Saturday round of golf will set the average Joe back 135.57 euros.

Madrid's mayor and city councilors are entitled to a card (although the UPyD party has renounced the right), including the Madrid Mayor Ana Botella. Her husband, José María Aznar, is also entitled to one, being a former prime minister. His two children also had VIP cards, according to the 2011 list, to which EL PAÍS has had access.

Botella said last week that she took golf classes at the club in 2001 with her family, within the protocol afforded the head of the government. But 10 years later, in 2011, Aznar's personal trainer still had a card. Zapatero had one as prime minister, as did his wife and two children; and his personal secretary, and his wife; as well as Zapatero's cabinet secretary, his deputy, and her daughter, who is married to a close friend of the former PM.

Although business leaders might not need the VIP card to save money, it does help in jumping to the top of the waiting list. The directors of the country's largest companies were members of the exclusive club in 2011, as were members of the Chamber of Commerce, leaders of employers' groups, bank executives, and so on. In some cases, their children had cards too.

In the marbled halls of the club visitors could expect to rub shoulders with members of the Court of Auditors, High Court prosecutors, the chief justice in Madrid, an army colonel, the director of Catholic charity Cáritas, a former minister from the Franco regime, ex-Real Madrid players, golfers, jockeys and a rally driver.

Popular Party mayor Botella abolished many of the VIP cards for journalists in 2013 but retained a "reduced" elite group. In 2011, an editor of conservative daily Abc was on the list, as was one of its columnists; the editor and director of PP-supporting La Razón, two presenters from Catholic radio station Cope and the editor and a political reporter from national daily La Gaceta, which once ran an advert claiming it was "proud to be rightwing."

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