TODAY PANAMA – A corruption probe into a welfare program in Panama now involves an ex-president, dozens of congressmen and several cabinet members — yet also raises questions about the motives of an anti-corruption crusade that mostly targets the current president’s political rivals.
Anti-corruption prosecutors have added two new cases to an investigation into the National Assistance Program (PAN), a welfare initiative designed to reduce poverty, according to La Estrella. While the prosecutors did not give details about the new cases, La Estrella speculated they involve the Hailing Corporation, a company that received a contract to distribute bags of food during Christmas.
Prosecutors said PAN officials and the administration of former President Ricardo Martinelli inflated contracts and took bribes to choose certain companies. In a related case, a prosecutor asked the Supreme Court to investigate 71 congressmen for allegedly influencing PAN contracts.
Two former PAN directors have been arrested for allegedly skimming $60 million dollars from contracts. Both directors implicated Martinelli in their testimonies, as did several former officials in his administration. Martinelli fled the country in January aboard a private jet, and an election tribunal recently revoked his special immunity from prosecution as the leader of a political party.
So far, prosecutors have indicted 120 people and seized $22 million in connection with the case. And $1.2 billion in contracts have come under scrutiny, due to poor accounting records between 2010 and 2014.
In one notable case, the PAN awarded two contracts worth $60 million to Longmire International to purchase food for schools, according to La Prensa. Longmire got the contracts despite a history of poor service — children had previously fallen ill from eating the company’s food.
The PAN scandal is one of several ongoing probes into Martinelli’s former administration at the behest of President Juan Carlos Varela, who once served as Martinelli’s vice president until the two had a serious falling out. Martinelli, who denies the allegations, claims he is the victim of political persecution and unfair portrayals in the media.
Varela denied the investigations are politically motivated and said in an interview preceding the recent Summit of the Americas held in Panama City, “I was elected to serve 4 million Panamanians, not to persecute one former president.” The former president appointed five of the nine justices on the Supreme Court, which approved the probe into Martinelli in January.
Varela also launched an investigation into allegations that Martinelli’s government illegally wiretapped and spied on politicians. And in February, a Supreme Court justice appointed by Martinelli pleaded guilty to charges of illegal enrichment and falsifying documents.