Spain court convicts 19 former ruling party officials in graft case


SEVILLE, Spain — A court in Spain on Tuesday convicted 19 former top officials from the ruling Socialists in Andalusia of graft for their role in one of the biggest corruption cases in the country's modern history.

The ruling comes as Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez struggles to secure enough support from other parties to be sworn in for another term.

His Socialist Party won a repeat general election on Nov. 10, but once again fell short of an absolute majority in parliament and the judgement could complicate his talks with other parties.

The 19 were convicted by a Seville court of distributing without any control hundreds of millions of euros meant to help the unemployed and companies in difficulty in the southwestern region, in what became known as the ERE case — the Spanish acronym for a mass-layoff plan.

In a trial that got underway in December 2017 and lasted a year, prosecutors estimated that, over a decade, members of the Andalusian administration diverted 680 million euros ($752 million) in public funds.

They say it was discreetly passed on to people and businesses, often with close ties to the Socialist party, some of whom were not affected by layoffs — which the funds were intended to compensate.

The court said there was an "absolute lack of control" in the management of the funds.

Two former heads of Andalusia's regional government, Manuel Chaves and Jose Antonio Grinan, were among those convicted. Both men also served as ministers under former Socialist prime minister Felipe Gonzalez.

The court found Grinan guilty of embezzlement and misappropriation of public funds and sentenced him to jail for six years. He was also declared ineligible for public office for 15 years.

It found Chaves guilty of maladministration and declared him ineligible for public office for nine years.

Two other people who stood trial were acquitted.

Andalusia, Spain's most populous region, had been for decades a stronghold of the Socialists.

The scandal broke in 2010, at the height of Spain's financial crisis, as Socialist prime minister Jose Luis Zapatero was introducing a slew of austerity measures that included cuts to civil servants' wages.

The affair forced Grinan to resign as head of the regional government of Andalusia, but during the trial both he and Chaves denied any fraud.

The conviction of two high-profile Socialists will provide fresh ammunition for Spain's main opposition Popular Party (PP) against the Socialists' current leader Sanchez.

The PP argues the ERE case shows the Socialists resorted to cronyism, using taxpayers' money to reward supporters with jobs and benefits in a bid to maintain their decades-long grip on the region.

The Socialists lost control of the Andalusia regional government in January after 36 years in office, to a coalition of the PP and the market-friendly Ciudadanos.

That same election saw the electoral breakthrough of the far-right party Vox, which won its first seats.

Spain has seen repeated corruption scandals in recent years that have exposed politicians, trade unions, bankers, footballers and even members of the royal family.

Sanchez himself came to power in June 2018 after ousting his predecessor Mariano Rajoy of the PP in a confidence vote triggered by a court ruling that the PP had profited from a kickbacks-for-contracts scheme.

The string of revelations have eroded Spaniards' faith in their institutions and elites. Polls show corruption is a major concern for Spaniards. — AFP