Health Minister Ana Mato resigns after court summons in graft case

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy forces her out ahead of a Congressional debate on corruption

Ana Mato, who resigned on Wednesday from her role as Spain’s health minister.
Ana Mato, who resigned on Wednesday from her role as Spain’s health minister.Claudio Alvarez (EL PAÍS)

Five-and-a-half years after it was first made public, the so-called Gürtel investigation into a kickbacks-for-contracts scheme has claimed its highest-profile politician: Health Minister Ana Mato, who resigned on Wednesday night after being summonsed to appear in court over her alleged involvement in the network of corrupt businessmen and politicians.

The official line is that she decided to step down, but a number of sources confirmed yesterday that first, she wanted to continue in her role despite the court summons, and that second, the final decision on her future was taken by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, with whom she held a meeting on Wednesday evening.

The official statement regarding the resignation stated that the minister wanted to avoid “damaging the government, the prime minister or the Popular Party.” Rajoy is due to appear in Congress today during a key debate about anti-corruption measures, and the presence of Mato on the government benches just a day after a judge announced that he would be calling her to court for her involvement in Gürtel would have caused serious damage to his message.

The prime minister is due to appear in Congress today during a key debate about anti-corruption measures

Mato, whose political career began 27 years ago when she went to work for future PP prime minister José María Aznar in Valladolid, will continue as a deputy in Congress, but will not be present at today’s debate. The deputy prime minister, Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, will assume her responsibilities until a new minister is named.

The judge investigating the massive Gürtel kickbacks-for-contracts case, which has ensnared a number of top officials in Spain’s ruling Popular Party (PP), announced on Wednesday that he believes Mato “personally profited” from crimes allegedly committed by her ex-husband, Jesús Sepúlveda, the former mayor of the Madrid suburb of Pozuelo de Alarcón.

Mato has not been named an official suspect in the case, but will have to sit in the dock during the hearing as civilly liable, judicial sources have said.

As well as trips and plane tickets, the alleged corruption network – which involved the awarding of fat contracts from PP regional and local governments to a group of prominent businessmen in exchange for kickbacks – may have paid for designer goods, children’s birthday parties and first communion celebrations for Mato and her daughter in 2001, 2002 and 2005.

Judge Pablo Ruz has estimated the value of the gifts at around €55,439.

Mato had managed to withstand pressure on her to resign, but this time things were different

Mato had previously managed to withstand pressure on her to resign brought about by revelations of her alleged involvement in the Gürtel network, given that she had always enjoyed the support of Rajoy. But this time things were different.

First, because the prime minister and the PP are suffering in the polls, given the damage that a constant stream of corruption cases has done. Regional party barons and mayors, who are facing elections in May 2015, are calling for Rajoy to act in the face of these scandals. But second, and more importantly, because the political timing was not working in her favor.

The key speech that Rajoy was due to give in Congress on Thursday has been designed to get the party out of the hole in which it finds itself in the wake of recent scandals, in particular Operation Púnica, another graft network involving several key party figures. The effect of these revelations has left 86.6 percent of Spaniards with little or no confidence in the prime minister, according to the latest polls. What’s more, voter intention for the PP has fallen to 27 percent, while new party Podemos, which is promising change and an end to the corruption of what it calls the “political caste,” is riding high in the opinion polls.

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