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Macri government renews stand-off with Attorney-General Gils Carbó

Attorney-General Alejandra Gils Carbó meeting with a EU official in June.
Attorney-General Alejandra Gils Carbó meeting with a EU official in June.
Attorney-General Alejandra Gils Carbó meeting with a EU official in June.
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As prosecutor requests summons to question nation’s chief prosecutor over fraud allegations, administration relaunches its campaign to oust her from office

The government has written a fresh chapter in its clash with Attorney-General Alejandra Gils Carbó, moving to apply pressure on the head of the country’s prosecutors as one of her own filed a request that she be summoned for questioning over fraud allegations.

Public efforts to end Gils Carbó’s tenure as attorney-general began soon after President Mauricio Macri was elected and even before he was sworn-in. The attorney-general, however, is refusing to budge and this week, she repeatedly vowed not to resign her post.

Let’s Change (Cambiemos) views Gils Carbó as an active sympathiser of former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, a charge she denies. Fernández de Kirchner nominated Gils Carbó in 2012, and the Senate, both with Kirchnerite and opposition support, gave her the super-majority approval required of all attorney-generals. Macri and Justice Minister Germán Garavano have consistently called for her resignation and tried various tactics to force Gils Carbó out of office. Attorney-generals can only be removed from their positions through an impeachment process that requires approvals of two-thirds of the Lower House and the Senate.

After a period of relative calm, renewed pressure was applied on the attorney-general this week after federal prosecutor Eduardo Taiano filed a request before Judge Julián Ercolini that she be summoned for questioning in relation to the $43.85 million peso purchase in 2013 of new headquarters for the attorney-general’s office.

“She’s not an impartial attorney general, she’s a political activist who has blocked the investigation of the corruption of the previous government, and with prosecutors that she moved and irregularly appointed has unleashed dozens of cases against our government without reason in most cases, as we have responded by saying so but also by providing information in every case that we have been asked to” said Macri on Wednesday, adding that “obviously we think that is misusing the enormous power that she has as attorney-general.”

Gils Carbó has reiterated that she is not politically aligned and that her participation in Justicia Legitima (Legitimate Justice), what she calls a progressive grouping of lawyers, prosecutors and judges, does not imply opposition to the Macri government. The Pink House accuses the attorney-general of being behind the scenes to advance corruption allegations against President Macri and other officials, some of them originated in the “Panama Papers,” the Odebrecht scandal and others linked to conflicts of interest.

Garavano seized on the request to underline that the government would not utilise a decree to end Gils Carbó’s term, as had been suggested only briefly beforehand by PRO lawmaker Pablo Tonelli, who is also a member of the powerful Magistrates Council. The minister used the summons request to urge her to step aside yet again.

“I can rule it out,” Garavano said, in reference to the use of a decree. “What we have to focus on is the criminal investigation, that the courts issue a ruling on this request for questioning issued by the prosecutor. The attorney-general should take a leave of absence and focus on her defence in the criminal process.” Garavano went on to say that her continued presence constituted “an incredibly serious institutional situation.”

The minister was speaking a few hours after a Cabinet meeting chaired by Macri and after Civic Coalition lawmaker Elisa Carrió had written on social media that “the Constitution must be respected, even with criminals like Gils Carbó whom I have denounced since her nomination. Either they change the law or they have to remove her with an impeachment. Nobody is going to force me to accept the violation of the Constitution.” On Wednesday, the firebrand lawmaker of Let’s Change tweeted that the attorney-general should be jailed for “a number of crimes she has committed.”

In the same that the president, vice-president, Supreme Court justices and ministers can be removed from office only by way of an impeachment if they commit a crime or are accused of malfesance, the attorney-general must be accused by two-thirds of the Lower House present at the time of voting and then removed by two-thirds of those present in the Senate. While impeachment requests against Gils Carbó have been filed, Let’s Change does not have the necessary support in both houses in order to impeach her.

In a rare radio interview, the attorney-general had said that she would not recognise a decree removing her and went as far as comparing her situation and Macri with her counterpart Luisa Ortega and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. Macri has been fiercely critical of the government in Caracas. Ortega, who has been facing down attempts by the Supreme Court to remove her from office, compared herself to Gils Carbó this week. “There’s a similar situation, with unconstitutional processes. Gils Carbó has said that her removal requires a congressional majority and in Venezuela the Constitution also considers the removal of the prosecutor-general through Congress” Ortega said a day after Gils Carbó had first made the comparison.

Yesterday, attorney-generals from across Latin America and Portugal and Spain met in Buenos Aires to express solidarity with Ortega and repeating their calls for independence in their work.

Gils Carbó received her law degree in 1981 and began work in private law from 1982 to 1987 before starting her career in the judiciary in 1989 in a judge’s office in the commercial law jurisdiction. After a series of positions both in judge’s offices and assisting prosecutors, Gils Carbó was named a prosecutor within the Attorney-General’s Office in 1998 and finally prosecutor before an commercial appeals court in 2004, the position she held until becoming attorney-general. Gils Carbó was nominated after former attorney-general Esteban Righi resigned amid fallout and accusations from then-vice president Amado Boudou related to the Ciccone case. She was actually Fernández de Kirchner’s second choice, as the first choice of Daniel Reposo was set for certain defeat in the Senate. Gils Carbó received 63 votes in favour and three against on the floor of the Senate.

Taiano steps in

The uptick in the focus on the attorney-general has coincided with the filing of prosecutor Taiano’s request for the summons, in which he accused Gils Carbó of participation “in crimes in which they disregarded the good conduct that they should have had as representatives of an institution like the Attorney General’s Office.” The prosecutor has also sought that testimony from another 10 people involved directly or indirectly in the purchase.

Taiano wrote that while the 2013 purchase of a building seemed to have been carried normally and in accordance with applicable guidelines, he found that in fact it had been “a charade that been uncovered.”

More specifically, the prosecutor argued that Gils Carbó had a decisive and conscious role in fraud surrounding a purchase of new headquarters that he alleged was rigged in order to benefit the accused. Taiano pointed to the fact that the real estate agent that won the commission for the sale is related to Gustavo Bellingi, the person appointed by Gils Carbó to be in charge of administrative services such as the acquisition of property.

Furthermore, the accusations — originated in an anonymous tip left at the doors of the office of a federal prosecutor — states that due to an “intentional orientation to benefit the company that is located on Perón street, along with the exorbitant percentages received by the intermediaries of the operation and background to the administrative actions and contract that is subject to this criminal investigation.”

The prosecutor zeroed in on the commission to Juan Carlos Thill, Bellingi’s brother, who was contracted by the Jaureguiberry real estate brokers for the sale. Jaureguiberry had earlier been contracted by the owners of the purchased building, Arfinsa.

By the same token, the prosecution indicated that it had found evidence that the terms of the public call for tender for building had been transmitted to Arfinsa, which also paid higher commissions than is common in the market.

The building on Perón 667 was bought for 43.85 million pesos from Arfinsa, which in turn paid 7.7 million pesos to Jaureguiberry, which then divided that commission in equal parts with Thill.

Gils Carbó has denied any kind of criminal responsibility and her defence team has asked that the investigation. “There was no possibility to foresee, neither for me nor for the 25, not two or three, 25 people in various areas that oversaw the purchase, that a relative of an official of this office could have received a commission of three million pesos which amount to US$ 176,000. There was absolute transparency. Neither them nor I could have detected something that did not appear in the file, that also could not have assumed, because the lowest price won, because everything has been done properly, there are absolutely no irregularities in the process” Gils Carbó said in an interview with El Cronista.

In a written defence presented to the courts, Gils Carbó’s lawyer noted that procedures for the purchase were followed rigorously and that any eventual irregularities would be shown in an investigation to have “generated a personal benefit to the detriment of the administration of the body.” Once reports of the irregularities surfaced, Bellingi was placed on leave and faced an internal administrative review.

The attorney-general also noted that the purchase was carried out “with a procedure with the intervention of all the competent internal and external control bodies, the purchase of a building with a the sought-after technical characteristics and at a value below the market price.”

Human rights organisations rejected the pressure on Gils Carbó this week, noting that a decree would be unconstitutional, and that in any case there were no reasons to start an impeachment, and recognising what they called her commitment to the investigation of crimes against humanity committed during the last dictatorship, the initiation of investigations into various forms of criminality such as human-trafficking and institutional violence. Among others, the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, the Mothers Plaza de Mayo — Founding Line, Familiares de Desaparecidos y Detenidos por Razones Políticos, H.I.J.O.S. Capital, and the Centre for Legal and Social Studies, the APDH and APDH La Matanza signed on to the letter in support of Gils Carbó.

A loaded history

Days before Macri was sworn-in as president in December 2015, Gils Carbó said she was the victim of an institutional coup attempt after the president-elect vowed to remove her from office.

“This attorney-general will not step down,” she told her subordinates at an annual meeting of prosecutors.

During the campaign, Macri said that he wanted Gils Carbó to be removed, describing her as a “Kirchnerite militant.”

While the rumours of the use of a decree to end her term did not come to fruition, the Macri administration shifted strategy to implement a reform of the law that regulates the Attorney-General’s and Public Defender’s Office in an effort to reduce their term in office and to facilitate their removal.

After months of being stuck in committee, an amended version of the government’s bill to reform the mandate and the authority of the Attorney-General’s Office was greenlighted in October 2016, raising the stakes again in the government’s open confrontation with Gils Carbó.

Of the raft of changes that the government sought to implement, the decision to limit the attorney general’s term to five years proved to be the biggest point of contention. Currently the law states that the holder of the office must retire when he or she reaches the age of 75, as is the case with Supreme Court justices.

Victory Front (FpV) lawmakers decried the move, branding the proposed reform “unconstitutional.”

Secondly, the reform of the system also sought to grant the Congressional Bicameral commission that oversees the work of the Attorney-General’s Officer greater powers, such as the review of the appointment of prosecutors and their creation of special prosecutor’s units.

The reform was first introduced in April 2016, and was met with a lack of support in the opposition and outright rejection by the FpV. The draft was backed by the Let’s Change coalition (PRO, Radicals, Civic Coalition), the Progressives, Renewal Front and despite some objections, the Justicialist Bloc. The Victory Front (FpV) and Workers’ Leftist Front (FIT) both emphatically rejected the reforms.

However, that effort eventually fell through after Carrió expressed her rejection of the process.

The government then put the brakes on its bid to undermine Attorney General Alejandra Gils Carbó’s authority in October 2016, pulling a vote midst glaring divisions within its ranks. Upon request from Let’s Change, the bill reforming the mandate and authority of the Attorney-General’s Office as well as the impeachment procedure was taken off the agenda.

Then as now, Let’s Change did not have sufficient votes to push through an impeachment nor reform in Congress and necessarily needs the support of Sergio Massa’s Renewal Front. Massa, who this week said that a decree would be unacceptable, also has divisions within his ranks as Lawmaker Graciela Camaño has shown herself to be more willing to move against Gils Carbó whereas another leading figure like Felipe Solá has been far more reticent. Any impeachment effort against Gils Carbó will thus likely require some horse-trading and deals so that the Renewal Front can extract concessions from the government.

In addition lawmakers such as Margarita Stolbizer (Progressives) have noted that any attempt to remove Gils Carbó must take place through an impeachment and not by decree. Stolbizer and Massa are running together for senators representing the province of Buenos Aires.

Herald with DyN, Télam

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