Ex-Balearics chief: “Urdangarin was the go-between, the facilitator”

Matas’s testimony at royal trial backs suspicions about Infanta Cristina’s husband

The former premier of the Balearic Islands, Jaume Matas, testified on Thursday.
The former premier of the Balearic Islands, Jaume Matas, testified on Thursday.Atienza (EFE)

The latest testimony at the Nóos corruption trial in Mallorca has reinforced prosecutors’ suspicions that Iñaki Urdangarin, the brother-in-law of King Felipe VI of Spain, received €2.6 million in no-bid contracts from the Balearic Islands government between 2003 and 2007 because of who he was.

The trial has attracted national attention not just because of its scale – 17 defendants accused of graft and other crimes – but also because it has ensnared Urdangarin’s wife, Spanish royal Cristina de Borbón.

Although the infanta’s role in the case is minor, it represents the first time that a member of the Spanish royal family has had to sit in the dock in a criminal case.

“To me it was unthinkable that Valencia might have paid that amount for something that was not worth it”

The trial began proper on Tuesday to great expectation, although Cristina de Borbón will not testify until later, most likely on February 19.

As the first defendants began taking the stand, several former high-placed officials in the Balearics confirmed that the regional government arbitrarily awarded contracts to the non-profit Nóos Institute just because Urdangarin was behind it.

José Luis Ballester, a former regional sports chief who was also a personal friend of King Felipe when the latter was still the crown prince, said there were direct orders from then-Balearics premier Jaume Matas of the Popular Party (PP) to favor Urdangarin’s non-profit foundation over any other interested parties.

Testifying on Thursday, Matas appeared much more cooperative than in other hearings involving parallel criminal investigations into his management of regional finances during his second term in office (2003-2007).

Cristina de Borbón and Iñaki Urdangarin exit the courtroom.
Cristina de Borbón and Iñaki Urdangarin exit the courtroom.Cati Cladera (EFE)

Prosecutors believe that Matas helped award Nóos a €300,000 fee for mediating during negotiations over the sponsorship of the Banesto cycling team, once considered the best in the world.

On Thursday, Matas told the court that the princess’s husband was “the go-between, the intermediary, the facilitator” of the agreement with the Banesto team, which in 2004 fell under the sponsorship of the Balearics government.

Matas also said that Ballester told him that “Urdangarin wanted to charge a one percent fee” and that this was normal.

“I accept my responsibility because I gave the order to take on that project, and I assume my guilt because Balearic taxpayers’ money was not spent on what it should have been spent on,” said Matas.

The former regional premier also admitted that he hired Ballester as sports chief because of his personal connections with the royal family.

Matas added that he agreed to pay €1.2 million to the Nóos Institute to organize the Illes Balears Fórum sports conference because the government of Valencia had done something similar a year earlier and paid a similar amount. Urdangarin is also being investigated for his business dealings in the Valencia region.

“To me it was unthinkable that Valencia might have paid that amount for something that was not worth it,” said Matas, adding that Urdangarin ran a non-profit that could only legally charge enough to cover expenditures.

Matas also said his sports chief told him that “Urdangarin wanted to charge a one percent fee”

The testimony is bad news for Urdangarin, a former Olympic handball medalist who married Cristina de Borbón in 1997 and was once a favorite with former king Juan Carlos.

Ever since becoming a target of a criminal inquiry in late 2011, he has been dropped from the royal agenda, as has his wife Cristina.

Urdangarin, who is charged with embezzlement, document forgery and money laundering, could spend over 19 years behind bars. His wife’s role in the case stems from the fact that she sat on the board of a company, Aizoon, that was allegedly used to channel part of Urdangarin’s embezzled funds.

She faces a prison sentence of up to eight years if found guilty of using some of this money to pay for personal expenses on a company credit card, then claiming these as deductions in 2007 and 2008 tax filings.

The decision to place the infanta on the stand has created a rift between legal experts who view it as evidence that everyone is equal before the law, and those who think Cristina de Borbón is being persecuted for who she is, rather than what she has done.

The state itself has brought no charges against her – instead, an anti-corruption group called Manos Limpias (Clean Hands) is acting as the private prosecution.

English version by Susana Urra.

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