Ex-regional premier of Madrid arrested in major anti-corruption operation

Ignacio González is one of 12 people held over shady financial activities at region’s water company

A former Madrid premier is among the 12 individuals who were arrested on Wednesday as part of a raid against corruption at the regional water management corporation Canal de Isabel II, which covers the water needs of six million Madrileños. Ignacio González, who served as regional premier with the Popular Party (PP) between 2012 and 2015, is the latest politician to be ensnared in a case that has been dogging the conservative party for some time.

Former Madrid premier Ignacio González in a file photo.
Former Madrid premier Ignacio González in a file photo.Luis Sevillano

Dubbed Operation Lezo, the investigation is headed by Judge Eloy Velasco of the Audiencia Nacional, Spain’s central High Court. Velasco is trying to determine whether public funds were channeled from the water company to benefit members of González’s administration.

Other sources said that the court is also investigating alleged illegal party financing through Canal de Isabel II, and purchases made by the water company in Latin America, where it allegedly overpaid for business acquisitions.

The arrests prove that Spanish institutions are doing their job

Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido

Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido, also of the PP, said that the arrests prove that Spanish institutions are doing their job and “are the greatest guarantee that there is no impunity.”

On Wednesday, González’s home and office were searched for evidence of wrongdoing. His brother Pablo was also held in connection with the case, and is believed to have acted as the ex-premier’s frontman. Another suspect, Edmundo Rodríguez Sobrino, is considered “Ignacio González’s man in Latin America.” María Fernanda Richmond, the former financial director at the water company, was also arrested.

Sources familiar with the case linked Rodríguez Sobrino with the acquisition of companies for sums above market prices. His name showed up in connection with several offshore companies created in Panama

The entrance to the Madrid water management company.
The entrance to the Madrid water management company.Claudio Alvarez

Under González, Canal de Isabel II acquired controlling shares in more than 20 companies in the Americas. Current premier Cristina Cifuentes ordered the water company to divest itself of a dozen of them after detecting “anomalous” procedures, and even sent prosecutors a report asking for an investigation.

In 2013, for instance, Canal de Isabel II purchased a Brazilian company named Emissao. In March of this year, opposition parties at the Madrid Assembly sent prosecutors a report showing that the water company paid €21.5 million for the Brazilian firm; just one month later, Emissao was worth half that amount, a year later it was worth a fourth, and it is currently in the red.

González has been involved in a number of unresolved scandals over the years. In February of last year, it emerged that his government allegedly used money from two government agencies to pay for work to improve the online media profiles of González and two top aides. The allegations were part of a larger investigation into the Púnica graft case, which affects former officials in Madrid and other parts of Spain.

Ignacio González and Esperanza Aguirre in 2014.
Ignacio González and Esperanza Aguirre in 2014.Alvaro García

He was also involved in a “spy case” in which leading PP politicians were allegedly wiretapped. But his most serious problem to date had been his purchase of a penthouse in Marbella for €300,000 from a dummy corporation based in Delaware, Maryland. González was summoned to testify over the purchase, believed to be a cash payment for favors rendered to the construction company Martinsa in connection with the rezoning of land in Arganda del Rey (Madrid).

Journalists involved

Meanwhile, the editor and president of the conservative newspaper La Razón, Francisco Marhuenda and Mauricio Casals, have become official suspects in Operation Lezo, legal sources have confirmed. Both men have been summoned to appear in court on Thursday at noon for a deposition.

Edmundo Rodríguez Sobrino, González’s nephew, is also CEO of the company that publishes La Razón.

Sources familiar with the investigation said that Marhuenda and Casals allegedly pressured the current Madrid premier, Cristina Cifuentes of the PP, to prevent her from reporting irregular activities at the water company – activities that Rodríguez Sobrino was involved in.

Cifuentes was called in to testify as a witness on Wednesday to provide additional information that may be relevant to the case.

English version by Susana Urra.

The Esperanza connection

Luca Costantini / EL PAÍS

Ignacio González succeeded Esperanza Aguirre at the helm of the Madrid regional government, where he had served as her top aide. A veteran figure within Spanish politics, Aguirre shattered glass ceilings by becoming the country's first female speaker of the Senate and culture minister. She was also the first Spanish woman to become an Honorary Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Aguirre served as head of the Madrid region for nearly a decade, from 2003 to 2012, when she stepped down citing health concerns. But many analysts said that she was feeling cornered by several corruption cases affecting the PP in Madrid, not least of them Púnica.

Following the arrest of her one-time aide on Wednesday, the opposition Socialists (PSOE) at Madrid City Council said that Aguirre, who is still head of the local PP representation, should give up her seat. “The circle is getting tighter,” said PSOE spokeswoman Purificación Causapié. “Ms Cifuentes should demand [her resignation] because we feel that her [permanence] is bad for the city, for the city council and for the dignity of politics.”

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