Finance Minister goes on offensive over criticism of Tax Agency reshuffle

Cristóbal Montoro accuses media of attempting to divert attention from its own tax bills

Finance Minister Cristóbal Montoro during his congressional appearance Thursday.
Finance Minister Cristóbal Montoro during his congressional appearance Thursday. Fernando Alvarado (EFE)

Finance Minister Cristóbal Montoro has suggested that the real reason for the media's recent criticism of himself and the Tax Agency (AEAT) is that the media themselves owe a lot of money to the state.

"I see stories attempting to link my person with a past that is not the present, and I must add that it makes no sense," he told Congress on Wednesday. "Those same media later come to my office to tell me about their problems with the Tax Agency. Can I not say in public that Spain's major media outlets owe a lot of money to AEAT?"

Montoro's address came in response to an urgent request by the Socialist Party for explanations regarding the recent spate of resignations and dismissals at the Tax Agency. The media have reported widely on the issue, and the leftist group United Left even holds that it may amount to a "political purge," because Montoro himself at one point noted that the agency department that was mostly affected by the reshuffle was "full of Socialists" who had disagreements with the new agency director, Santiago Menéndez. Montoro later said that what he really meant is that he<TB>had just found out that there are six high-ranking positions within this department that were appointed by the Socialists while they were in power, not by the AEAT.

In the hallways of Congress following his address, Montoro attempted to introduce some nuance to his earlier statements and said that the criticism per se does not bother him, as it is part of the principle of democracy. Instead, he declared himself annoyed at the stories that are getting published in the knowledge that they are false, he said, and stressed that it is untrue the cement multinational Cemex had a multimillion-euro sanction reduced because of political maneuvering by the ruling Popular Party (PP).

Socialist deputy Pedro Saura had previously accused Montoro of a "cover-up"

Socialist deputy Pedro Saura had previously accused Montoro of a "cover-up" to conceal the goings-on at AEAT. "The trail of absurdities that has defined AEAT over the last two years can be attributed to two people: [Prime Minister] Rajoy for looking the other way and yourself for approving a purge," said Saura when he took to the floor. "You are getting the taxpayers confused with your clients. You think there are special first-class taxpayers. This is very serious."

The coverage began with the dismissal of an official at the large contributors department of the AEAT's inspections division after she rejected an appeal by the Spanish unit of the giant Mexican cement maker Cemex against a multimillion-euro fine. Her immediate boss and other figures subsequently resigned, while the head of the inspection department, Luis Jones, tendered his resignation, citing differences with AEAT director Menéndez (who himself accepted the job after his predecessor resigned in June over an identity card number mix-up involving Princess Cristina).

The agency has also been reproved by some sectors for the fiscal amnesty that appears to have favored former PP treasurer Luis Bárcenas, who is at the heart of an investigation into alleged illegal party funding.

On Wednesday, Montoro also asked parties in Congress for support to pass a new statute for the AEAT that will better define how appointments take place. The goal, he said, is to "give everyone security" and "satisfy the thousands of men and women who guarantee tax collection and the fight against fraud."

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