lottery winnings

The 300 mayors with a major problem

A businessman decided to share his lottery ticket with his clients, all local leaders But when the number came up, some decided to pocket the cash rather than helping their villages

The mayor of Ruerrero, Julio Espinosa, in the local bar with his fellow villagers.
The mayor of Ruerrero, Julio Espinosa, in the local bar with his fellow villagers.David Hojas

On December 22, Vicente de la Fuente won third prize in Spain’s famous Christmas lottery, El Gordo — or, The Fat One, so called because it hands out the world’s largest payout, with more than two billion euros up for grabs.

The win meant a cool five million euros for Vicente’s lottery number. But the entrepreneur, who organizes nearly all the local fiestas in southern Cantabria, northern Burgos and parts of Asturias, is not a happy man.

As many people do right before the Christmas holidays, as a token gift to friends, relatives and clients, Vicente gave out small shares of the number he had bought to the mayors of more than 300 villages for whom he works. The shares were broken down into tickets worth two, three and five euros apiece.

And now that they are all winners too, a problem has come up that local government legislation is unable to resolve: who should keep the money, the mayors themselves or the municipalities they represent?

The political future of more than 300 elected officials hangs on the answer.

But it’s all very clear for Julio Espinosa, mayor of Ruerrero. “All of it will be for my village,” he says as he makes his way to his potato field. Then, with a crooked smile, he pulls out the winning ticket, which represents winnings of 12,500 euros.

The mayor of Ruerrero was one of the first local leaders to come out and say that the prize money will go straight to the municipal coffers. In a community of 50 people — who are proud of their local product, a cheese made with unpasteurized sheep’s milk called Valluco — the 12,500 euros is three times as much as they spend on fiestas in an entire year. But Espinosa plans to spend some of the money on things other than fireworks.

“Some of it will have to go to the elderly,” he explains.

Who should keep the money, the mayors themselves or the municipalities they represent?

Merche is one of these elderly folk, and she is furious to hear the news that other mayors plan to keep the prize money for themselves. “This is when you see what people are really made of,” she says, in reference to the leader of Valderredible, the neighboring village.

Valderredible is the largest municipality in the southernmost valley in Cantabria. Inside a bar called La Parra, talk centers around the lottery issue. The waitress, María Ángeles Díaz Caballero — who is also the mayor of Arantiones, another mountain hamlet — turns serious for a moment: “Darned lottery,” she says. “I would spend it on whatever I wanted. We don’t make a cent from our job, and the one time this windfall comes along...”

José Manuel Seco, the mayor of Naveda, who will be donating the lottery winnings to his village.
José Manuel Seco, the mayor of Naveda, who will be donating the lottery winnings to his village.David Hojas

But her case is hypothetical, as Vicente does not organize festivities in Arantiones and thus did not give out lottery shares there.

A man with a graying beard and rosy cheeks listens intently as he downs a glass of wine. The issue affects him personally. Rubén Saiz is the mayor of Ruanales, another tiny rural community. He decided to donate the 12,500 euros to the hamlet, yet he defends those who chose not to.

The mayors blame a man called Xavier Murgui for all the controversy. Murgui, who is president of the neighborhood association Valcampoo, filed a complaint with the public prosecutor last Tuesday, calling on the authorities to establish who the prize money belongs to. Murgui is not a welcome figure around these parts. Inside the local bar at Elines, another nearby location, people use an unflattering word to describe him, rather than his actual name. Elines is run by Manuel Navarro, who has announced he will be spending the money on his own affairs, just like his colleague in Valderredible, Fernando Fernández.

Neither mayor will explain why they have decided to keep the money. But some of the residents defend their decision. In Ruerrero, people explain that these hamlets are run on a system of mutual back-scratching. “If residents don’t defend the mayor, maybe the next day their cattle will be set loose or their land might catch fire,” says one woman.

Over at La Olma bar, in Ponientes, people are very familiar with Vicente de la Fuente, who is described as a kind, down-to-earth kind of guy. He and his representatives travel all across southern Cantabria to ensure that his company gets a large share of the municipal pie represented by the organization of hundreds of local fiestas. Bernardo Lucio, the former mayor of Valderredible, approaches the counter.

“I have a ticket, too,” he says.

One mayor said the prize money will go straight to the municipal coffers

“But you are no longer the mayor.”

“Right, but I’m a friend of Vicente’s.”

The shadow of Vicente Producciones Artísticas is cast everywhere. His company’s 2014 calendar hangs over the bar counter. “It came inside an envelope, together with the lottery ticket,” explains the former mayor, somewhat apologetically.

The fog conceals the tiny town of Naveda, located at the foot of the Alto Campoo ski resort. José Manuel Seco, who has been mayor for the last 27 years, says it is simply not true that the shares were given out to individuals. “The relationship between the mayors and the company exists because of the position they hold. Therefore, they have to give [the money] to their village,” he says.

Seco does not personally know “that Vicente guy.” It is his representatives who deal with this particular area of Cantabria. Naveda belongs to a larger municipality called Hermandad de Campoo de Suso, where the three lottery shares that Vicente supposedly handed out, representing prize money of 37,500 euros, have yet to turn up. The mayor, Pedro Luis Gutiérrez, confesses that Vicente has confirmed he sent them, yet nobody can find them at town hall.

“I talked to him on the phone. He is a gentleman. He asked me to meet for coffee, since I still haven’t met him in person,” says the mayor.

There are also villages with winning numbers in the nearby region of Asturias and in Burgos province, although the controversy here is not as great. The mayor of Peñamellera Baja, Manuel Fernández Díez, said he will also be giving the money to the town. He adds that it is customary for companies specializing in event organization to send a calendar and a lottery share to clients every year. “In the end all they’re giving you is two or three euros. It’s a bare minimum, and simply a matter of courtesy.”

But as luck would have it, this year the courtesy has created a major problem.

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