September 23, 2014
Courts refuse to handle corruption allegations regarding colleaguesSaturday, July 26, 2014
Graft case involving judges stalled
Judges reluctant to investigate their colleagues, rights groups and prosecutors say
The country’s highest criminal court is involved in a bribery scandal that more than 10 judges repeatedly refused to handle. The case, of institutional importance, also makes evident the problems faced by the judiciary when magistrates are involved, sources told the Herald.
Last week, the City’s Criminal Appeals Court decided that a bribery case involving a Criminal Cassation Court judge and two other former colleagues must be investigated by Federal Judge Norberto Oyarbide. The judge has still to confirm if he will accept the investigation into alleged bribes involving a court within the Criminal Cassation Court allegedly aimed at securing the release of Unión Ferroviaria railway workers’ union leader José Pedraza, who was sentenced to prison for the murder of Workers’ Party (PO) activist Mariano Ferreyra in 2010.
“This is one of the most serious cases of corruption,” Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS) lawyer Maximiliano Medina, one of the plaintiffs, told the Herald. “The reluctance of the judges to investigate makes it clear that there is a structural failure that prevents progress from being made in these probes,” the human rights organization member added.
Horacio Azzolin, the prosecutor who has had the case in his hands since October 2013, largely agreed with the diagnosis.
“We have to make institutions more transparent. This situation surpasses this particular case, which only reveals that the judiciary does not have a space in which to investigate itself,” Azzolin said in conversation with the Herald.
In fact, the Magistrates Council can examine cases of judges accused of malfeasance and can decide on a removal. However, the reluctance of judges to investigate makes it clear that criminal investigation can be stalled if a colleague is involved.
When Judge Wilma López was investigating Mariano Ferreyra’s death, she did not only learn of the role played by a gang linked to the Unión Ferroviaria railway workers’ union, but also realized that Pedraza wanted to bribe three members of the highest criminal court in order to be released from prison. One of the judges, Eduardo Riggi, still holds a seat at the Cassation Court and will probably have to issue a ruling regarding this particular case. The other two judges involved were Gustavo Mitchell — who stepped down in 2011 — and Mariano González Palazzo, who was replacing a magistrate at the court when the scandal was revealed in 2011.
A year later, Judge Luis Rodríguez indicted four other men involved in the case for influence peddling and bribery but did not include the members of the criminal tribunal. Indicted were former federal judge Octavio Aráoz Lamadrid, State Intelligence Secretariat (SIDE) agent Juan José Riquelme, the union’s accountant Ángel Stafforini and Luis Ameghino Escobar, one of the Cassation Court secretaries who was scheduled to send the case to the court made up of Riggi, Mitchell and González Palazzo, who were allegedly going to favour Pedraza and other defendants.
In a raid ordered at Aráoz Lamadrid’s legal firm, the federal police seized US$50,000, which was allegedly going to be given to members of the court. Though some highlight that the police prevented the payment from taking place, Azzolin along with his colleague Sandro Abraldes have doubts. “Are we sure that they did not receive a previous payment?,” the prosecutor wondered.
With last week’s resolution, the City’s Criminal Court considered that Riggi and his colleagues should in fact be charged with bribery, a decision that was welcomed by the CELS. But the human rights organization did not agree with the decision to bring the case to a federal court. Medina told the Herald that they plan to appeal the resolution in the Criminal Cassation Court but that the request will probably lead to a dead end.
The court that will have to analyze the appeal request is comprised of judges Gustavo Hornos, Juan Carlos Gemignani and Riggi. Court sources highlighted that Riggi was appointed at that court recently to replace the head of the Cassation Court Mariano Borinsky. “He will have to excuse himself from taking part in the discussion but he will have access to the judicial file,” they told the Herald.
Before reaching Oyarbide’s office, the case was in the hands of Pablo Ormaechea, who said that it did not belong under his jurisdiction. Ormaechea did not accept the legal actions requested by the prosecutors or the plaintiffs.
As soon as a judge takes charge of the probe, he or she will have to summon Cassation Court Judge Angela Ledesma to testify as a witness. Ledesma was the head of the criminal tribunal in 2011, when Mitchell reportedly told her that he was going to stay in the office during the summer judicial recess that year — an unusual situation. Prosecutors believe that it was an attempt to make sure the case was not analyzed by other members of the court.
Plaintiffs also want to know if Riggi’s son benefited with a loan from Banco Ciudad as part of the alleged bribery case.
Riggi became a judge in 1978 during the last military dictatorship. Before that promotion, he was an employee at the so-called “Camarón,” a criminal court charged with prosecuting militants of left-wing organizations. He dismissed being part of the ultra-conservative Catholic group Opus Dei some time ago.
González Palazzo arrived at the highest criminal court in 2008 as a substitute.
For his part, Mitchell was appointed at the Criminal Cassation Court during Carlos Menem’s term as president (1989-1999). He was a judge during the last dictatorship and human rights organizations do not have good memories of his role during those dark years.
Mitchell authorized the adoption of the son of an illegally imprisoned Uruguayan activist. Sara Méndez, the woman who was able to find her son, filed a criminal complaint against Mitchell. Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo head Estela Barnes de Carlotto also reported that an adviser to the magistrate told her while she was looking for her grandson during the state terror-era: “The judge says you’d better stay safe.” The human rights leader took those words as a threat.
“The reluctance to investigate the role played by judges is also clear in the trials for crimes against humanity,” Azzolin said. Since the reopening of the cases in 2006, only one former judge has been sentenced for crimes committed during the last dictatorship, former Santa Fe federal judge Víctor Hermes Brusa.
In Mendoza province, former federal judges Luis Miret, Guillermo Max Petra Recabarren, Rolando Evaristo Carrizo, Gabriel Guzzo and Otilio Romano — who fled to Chile to avoid been taken to court after being impeached in the Magistrates Council in 2011 — are currently being tried in court for human rights abuses.
In conversation with this newspaper, Azzolin shared an example to clarify how “judicial ties” can obstruct legal investigations. “I am a prosecutor in Buenos Aires City but I was sent to investigate the role played by former federal judge Ricardo Lona in Salta during the last dictatorship as many prosecutors declined to intervene.”
Sources from the Attorney-General unit for crimes against humanity led by Jorge Auat and Carolina Varsky estimated that there were 41 judges who have been charged with offences committed during the last dictatorship. If other members of the judiciary are included, the number climbs to 65, sources confirmed to the Herald.