Former Socialist minister one step away from graft trial

Supreme Court requests congressional permission to put José Blanco on stand for influence-peddling

The Supreme Court on Friday asked Congress to set aside the parliamentary privilege of Socialist deputy José Blanco so that it can prosecute him on influence-peddling charges relating to offenses he allegedly committed while he served as public works minister in the former Zapatero government.

The top court has been investigating Blanco, who was the Socialist government’s chief spokesman in 2011, on allegations that he helped a Galician pharmaceutical businessman, Jorge Dorribo, obtain permits for his businesses in exchange for at least 290,000 euros. But the investigation has turned to another businessman, José Antonio Orozco, a friend whom Blanco allegedly helped obtain a warehouse license.

Blanco, who has denied the accusations, said he would step down from his congressional seat if probable cause was found against him and a trial date set. In March, Blanco had said that he would give up his seat in Congress if he was formally named in the so-called Operation Champion investigation.

At a news conference, Socialist Party leader Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba only gave a curt "yes" when asked by a reporter whether he still backed Blanco. "I have nothing new to add," he said.

Supreme Court Justice José Ramón Soriano, who is investigating Blanco, decided to set aside for now bribery and breach of official duty charges that a prosecutor has recommended should be filed against the former minister.

The justice sees the minister’s influence in mayor’s change of heart

Justice Soriano has based his petition to Congress on the influence-peddling allegation on a license Blanco reportedly helped his friend Orozco obtain for a warehouse in Sant Boi. According to the investigation, Blanco asked his then-secretary of state for transportation, Isaías Táboas, to call the Socialist mayor of the Barcelona provincial town on behalf of his friend.

Blanco, who also served as Socialist secretary general when José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero was prime minister, had denied ordering Táboas to make that call.

"After José Antonio Orozco had difficulties in obtaining an environmental license from the municipality of Sant Boi to build a warehouse, given the negative reports by the town's technical advisor, and the possible alternatives would have meant a significant financial outlay for the company Azkar that Mr Orozco was not prepared to meet, he looked for other ways to obtain the license he needed," the justice wrote.

During the proceedings, the Sant Boi technician testified that the secretary of state's call did not influence him to grant the license. However, the judge in his ruling highlighted the power of influence of a minister over a mayor.

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