Sitting on one side of the room was Mariola Vargas, the candidate. On the other side was a jury made up of five members of her own Popular Party (PP). And across from them all sat an assembly of journalists hoping to ask a question or two in the first of five “auditions” being held to select replacements for the mayors who were brought down by Operation Púnica, a raid against a far-reaching bid-rigging scheme that was exposed last month.
The creator of this new interrogation system is Esperanza Aguirre, a former premier of the Madrid region, current head of the Madrid branch of the PP, and a potential mayoral candidate in next year’s municipal elections in the capital.
By putting new mayors to the test, Aguirre is trying to protect herself against future corruption cases of the type that have sent some of her closest former aides to prison, including Francisco Granados, considered the mastermind of the Púnica scheme.
While Aguirre watched the interrogation from a nearby office (“so as not to take the limelight away from the candidate,” according to party sources), Mariola Vargas explained that she is the social services councilor of Collado Villalba, a town of 62,684 residents north of the capital. A doctor by trade, she is a “happily married” mother of three and continues to pay a mortgage on her house.
Vargas presented herself as the ideal candidate to replace Agustín Juárez, who stepped down after becoming a target of the Púnica investigation in connection with contracts irregularly awarded to a company named Cofely.
The candidate easily replied to the battery of bland questions aimed at highlighting her personal and professional life
For around an hour, the candidate easily replied to the battery of mostly bland questions aimed at highlighting her personal and professional life. Vargas vehemently denied any knowledge of wrongdoing in the contracts with Cofely, even though she was part of the municipal governing board and has defended Juárez’s actions in the past.
Vargas said she wants the post to “secure a better future for my children” and that her dedication to public service has entailed a salary reduction for her, since she used to earn around €2,800 a month as a doctor plus another €1,600 for services at a senior residence. The mayor’s salary is €65,000 a year.
“Did you ever accept commissions in B money [undeclared cash]?” asked Fernando Martínez Vidal, a councilor for Madrid’s Salamanca district and a member of the jury that will decide whether Vargas is fit to be declared the new mayor of Collado Villalba.
“Not in A, in B or in C,” was the terse reply.
“Do you feel that you have the ability to lead this project?” asked Mª Eugenia Carballedo, chair of the tribunal.
“I believe so,” said Vargas. “I worked in the ER for a long time, and I become stronger in risky situations. But residents have to decide that.”
“Is there anything else you would like to say to convince us that you are the right person for the post?” asked Martínez Vidal, reminding her that the entire session was being recorded and that her words would be binding.
“Rather than tell you, I would like to show you,” said Vargas. “I’m not going to tell you that I’m a Jewish dog because I’m not. Ask the people who know me for references.”
While it went by almost unnoticed by the attendees of the question-and-answer session, the use of the expression “Jewish dog” by Vargas prompted accusations of anti-Semitism on social networking sites. Vargas, who was confirmed as the new mayor of Collado Villalba on Friday, later apologized for the phrase, calling it a “colloquial,” “very Madrileño expression.”