Fernandez’s le­gal woes mount

Cor­rup­tion probe could hurt come­back

The Washington Times Daily - - WORLD - BY FRED­ERIC PUGLIE

BUENOS AIRES | For­mer Ar­gen­tine Pres­i­dent Cristina Fernandez was in­dicted Tues­day on wide-rang­ing fed­eral charges of cor­rup­tion and con­spir­acy, putting a ma­jor kink in her po­lit­i­cal come­back hopes a year af­ter vot­ers turned out her left-lean­ing gov­ern­ment and months be­fore crit­i­cal midterm elec­tions next year.

In a 794-page doc­u­ment, fed­eral Judge Ju­lian Er­col­ini for­mally ac­cused Ms. Fernandez and key of­fi­cials of her ad­min­is­tra­tion of hav­ing con­spired to “il­le­gally and de­lib­er­ately seize funds as­signed for road con­struc­tion” be­fore and dur­ing her eight-year pres­i­dency that ended in De­cem­ber 2015.

Mr. Er­col­ini also froze $643 mil­lion of Ms. Fernandez’s as­sets — or about 90 times the net worth the out­go­ing pres­i­dent in­di­cated in a 2015 sworn dec­la­ra­tion. The same mea­sure was ap­plied to her co-de­fen­dants, who in­clude two for­mer Cabi­net of­fi­cials and Car­los Kirch­ner, a cousin of her late hus­band and pre­de­ces­sor, Nestor Kirch­ner.

The judge slammed Ms. Fernandez for hav­ing “vi­o­lated her duty to faith­fully man­age and pro­tect na­tional prop­erty,” claim­ing she helped route mil­lions to busi­nesses of Lazaro Baez, a Kirch­ner fam­ily friend turned con­struc­tion mag­nate. Wed­nes­day’s de­ci­sion comes on top of a May in­dict­ment and $1 mil­lion freeze on her per­sonal as­sets in a probe in­volv­ing cur­rency ma­nip­u­la­tion.

The case could mark a stun­ning fall from grace for Ms. Fernandez, who with her hus­band dom­i­nated the po­lit­i­cal scene here for more than a decade but who has seen her legacy chal­lenged by Mauri­cio Macri, the cen­ter-right busi­ness­man who suc­ceeded her as pres­i­dent.

The for­mer pres­i­dent’s lat­est le­gal trou­bles are dif­fer­ent in size and scope be­cause they can­not be con­sid­ered po­lit­i­cal, said Joaquin Mo­rales Sola, a prom­i­nent colum­nist for the La Na­cion daily and long­time critic of the Kirch­n­ers.

“If all lev­els of jus­tice rat­ify Er­col­ini’s de­ci­sion, it will go to trial,” Mr. Mo­rales Sola said. “This will end in a trial, and she will cer­tainly go to jail.”

Mr. Macri, who promised to ag­gres­sively fight cor­rup­tion when he took of­fice a year ago, mean­while, stands to reap the po­lit­i­cal fruits as he heads into midterm elec­tions, Mr. Mo­rales Sola said. “The con­trast [to Ms. Fernandez] ben­e­fits Macri,” he said.

But with the wheels of jus­tice turn­ing slowly in Ar­gentina — the ap­peals will likely take months to play out — Ms. Fernandez may well be pro­tected by im­mu­nity once the fi­nal ver­dict comes in: That’s be­cause the for­mer pres­i­dent has been flirt­ing with seek­ing a con­gres­sional seat in the com­ing elec­tions, set to take place in late 2017.

That tac­tic has been suc­cess­fully tested by one of Ms. Fernandez’ pre­de­ces­sors, for­mer Pres­i­dent Car­los Menem, who had be­come a se­na­tor for La Rioja prov­ince by the time a fed­eral court sen­tenced him to seven years in prison over 1990s il­le­gal arms sales. To­day, the 86-year-old Mr. Menem con­tin­ues to serve in Congress, though he is among those up for re-elec­tion next year.

Ar­gentina’s elec­toral setup, mean­while, means that Ms. Fernandez — like Mr. Menem a two-term pres­i­dent once re-elected in a land­slide — could eas­ily work her way back into Congress. But her pop­u­lar­ity has dipped pre­cip­i­tously amid this year’s in­dict­ments, and only hard-lin­ers would now back her re­turn to the Casa Rosada, Mr. Mo­rales Sola said.

“The rest of the pop­u­la­tion won­ders why she is not in jail yet,” he said.

Fernandez loy­al­ists, how­ever, at­tribute the for­mer leader’s le­gal trou­bles to a sup­posed con­spir­acy be­tween Mr. Macri and busi­ness and me­dia in­ter­ests back­ing the new pres­i­dent.

“We are con­vinced that this is a po­lit­i­cal per­se­cu­tion,” for­mer Front for Vic­tory Rep. Ju­lia Perie told The Wash­ing­ton Times, echo­ing a Novem­ber let­ter in which Mr. Fernandez had ac­cused Mr. Macro of “in­vent­ing” ju­di­cial pro­ceed­ings against her and her fam­ily.

Now a law­maker at the Mer­co­sur par­lia­ment in Montevideo, Ms. Perie said she lacked “any con­fi­dence at all” in the in­de­pen­dence of Ar­gentina’s ju­di­cial sys­tem and would whole­heart­edly back the ru­mored Fernandez can­di­dacy for a con­gres­sional seat.

“Who will de­cide what hap­pens is the [for­mer] pres­i­dent,” she said. “She leads this po­lit­i­cal move­ment strate­gi­cally.”

ASSOCIATED PRESS

An Ar­gen­tine judge in­dicted for­mer Pres­i­dent Cristina Fernandez on Tues­day, on cor­rup­tion and con­spir­acy charges, putting a kink in her po­lit­i­cal come­back hopes just months be­fore Ar­gentina’s midterm elec­tions.

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