Like many other magistrates, High Court Judge Pablo Ruz is used to hearing outlandish explanations from witnesses or suspects without incredulity creasing his face. But even he was put to the test on Wednesday. “You mean to tell me that a lawyer such as yourself was not aware that you were signing that document, and that as such your signature could mean legal responsibilities for you?” The question, according to those present, was put by Ruz to José Ángel Cañas with just a touch of annoyance in his voice.
Cañas, the manager of the Castilla-La Mancha regional Popular Party (PP), had just admitted to the judge that he wrote and signed a receipt for the amount of 200,000 euros, money that is alleged to have been handed over in cash in 2007 by Sufi, an affiliate company of construction firm Sacyr. The money is suspected to have been used to finance the PP’s regional election campaign, which was headed up by current Castilla-La Mancha premier María Dolores de Cospedal.
But Cañas also claimed that he was “forced” to make out the receipt following instructions given by former Popular Party national treasurer Luis Bárcenas. What’s more, he claimed that despite what the document says, he did not receive a single cent of the 200,000 euros mentioned.
Cañas is presenting himself as imprudent rather than the recipient of a bribe
Bárcenas is currently in jail awaiting trial as an investigation into the funding of the Popular Party by Ruz continues. Details of an alleged slush fund run by Bárcenas emerged earlier this year, when EL PAÍS published copies of ledgers kept by the ex-treasurer. Not only did they detail irregular cash payments to the party by firms — mostly major construction companies — but also regular, undeclared cash bonuses given to party leaders, including current Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and De Cospedal. The latter has strenuously denied these accusations, which have come from Bárcenas himself, and has brought a civil case against the ex-treasurer.
“I filled out the receipt because it was an order from a superior,” the judge was told by Cañas, who was apparently opting for a strategy of presenting himself as imprudent rather than the recipient of a bribe from a construction company.
After spending his first 18 days in preventive custody, on July 15 Luis Bárcenas admitted to the judge to running the slush fund detailed in the papers published by EL PAÍS, and explained that the 200,000 euros from the Sacyr affiliate was paid as commission for the company being awarded the street-cleaning contract in Toledo, a city that at the time was governed by the PP. It was these revelations that led to Cañas being named as an official suspect in Ruz’s investigation, as well as the former chairman of Sacyr, Luis de Rivero, and the current head of the construction company, Manuel Manrique.
Cañas explained to the judge that, “under Bárcenas’ orders,” he signed one receipt for 100,000 in January 2007. Then in February of the same year, he explained, the ex-treasurer ripped up the document and, without offering any explanation, obliged him to make out another for the amount of 200,000 euros. When Judge Ruz expressed his surprise at hearing this part of Cañas’ testimony, the latter explained that he had just been named regional manager of the PP and feared that he would be sacked were he to ignore the orders of the then-treasurer.
“The meetings with Bárcenas were very tense,” lawyers who were present during Cañas’ statement report him as having said. “He treated me as if I were incompetent.” Other sources explained that Cañas described his former boss as a “violent” person.
me as if I were incompetent"
Cañas explained the source of the money as being down to the financial difficulties the regional PP was suffering. As such, he claimed, the national party transferred funds over for day-to-day operations as well as during the run-up to the election campaigns of 2006 and 2007. Cañas was presenting himself to the judge as a puppet of Bárcenas, but in fact, his testimony was serving to benefit the leader of the Castilla-La Mancha PP, De Cospedal. No sooner had the questioning finished, party sources were briefing journalists, saying that the information that Cañas had given the judge was “perfectly in line” with De Cospedal’s statements to the judge on the same issue.
But the reality is that, on August 14, De Cospedal told Judge Ruz that there had been no such backhander, although she was prevented from elaborating by the magistrate. The reason for doing so was that her testimony may affect figures who enjoy parliamentary immunity, such as the speaker of the regional court, Vicente Tirado, whom Bárcenas claims was present at the meeting when the money was handed over.
De Cospedal denied that Bárcenas had ever handed over cash to her and claimed that all the money she received from the Popular Party’s Madrid headquarters came via bank transfer. But that claim contradicts the version given by the national PP, who, on October 18, told Judge Ruz that the party “had no record of any accounting documents or of any other type from which can be deduced the receipt of the amount of 200,000 euros by José Ángel Cañas in the year 2007.” The PP says that there is no evidence of the payment of 200,000 euros in its Toledo headquarters, nor in its accounting.
On Wednesday, the regional vice secretary of the opposition Socialist Party (PSOE) in Castilla La-Mancha, Cristina Maestre, said that “this is the fifth version offered by the PP and De Cospedal about this issue, and it gives the impression that it is just as false and contradictory as the four previous versions.” She went on to say that “now it turns out that the money was paid in advance by the national PP and that the receipts relate to advance payments. We are faced with the strange case of the pretend and delayed receipt,” she added.
When Luis del Rivero appeared before the judge on Wednesday, he significantly veered from his last statement. Del Rivero once again denied that the company that he ran until 2011 had paid out any money in exchange for the granting of a contract. However, he offered a very different version of his relationship with Bárcenas. On May 28, Del Rivero told Judge Ruz that he had “scant” relations with the former PP treasurer. “I remember having one lunch with him [...] and we mostly spoke about soccer,” he said at the time.
But on Monday the defense for Bárcenas handed over to the High Court a number of notes supposedly made by Bárcenas in his diaries in which no less than 11 meetings with Del Rivero between 2006 and 2007 are mentioned. The former Sacyr boss admitted that these meetings had taken place, as well as confirming that he invited Bárcenas to his own son’s wedding. However, Del Rivero denied any involvement in the meeting that, according to Bárcenas, was held regarding the backhander for the De Cospedal election campaign in 2007.