The Miami Herald
Dec. 14, 2003

Senate bagman tells of delivering $5 million in bribes

A former official says he delivered cash to nine senators to gain passage of a pro-business employment law.

  Los Angeles Times Service

  BUENOS AIRES - A congressional official's emotional confession in a report published Saturday has reopened one of Argentina's most notorious scandals, shedding light on the behind-the-scenes dealings that doomed a president and set off years of political instability.

  In an interview with Buenos Aires magazine TXT, former Senate Secretary Mario Pontaquatro described how he delivered a $5 million bribe to nine senators at the behest of then-President Fernando De la Rua in April 2000.

  The money, Pontaquatro said, was provided from the secret funds of the nation's intelligence service and delivered in two briefcases to senators of the nation's dominant political parties, the Radicals and the Peronists.

  ''I asked him why me, why couldn't someone else do this,'' Pontaquatro told TXT, remembering the moment a senator told him he would be the go-between delivering the money. ``But I didn't turn him down. They were telling me it had to be done, the government needed it to be done.''

  Pontaquatro spoke to the magazine three weeks ago and repeated his story late Friday to a judge investigating the case who has granted him immunity from prosecution. Several senators were named as defendants when the scandal first broke in 2000, but over the years all charges were dropped for lack of evidence. The charges could be reinstated, however, as a result of the new evidence.

  The bribery allegations split De la Rua's ruling center-left coalition. Frustrated with De la Rua's apparent unwillingness to pursue the case, Vice President Carlos Alvarez resigned and his leftist Frepaso movement left the government. The weakened De la Rua was himself forced from office amid rioting and protest in December 2001.

  The alleged bribes bought yes votes for a business-backed employment reform law demanded by the International Monetary Fund but which faced strong resistance from organized labor and its allies in the Argentine Congress.

  Elected president in 1999, De la Rua inherited a country burdened with a growing public debt and increasingly dependent on IMF loans. The IMF insisted Argentina balance its books and that it adopt laws that would improve the country's business climate.

  De la Rua denied Saturday that he authorized bribing anyone, calling the accusations ''absolutely false.'' He accused the government of President Néstor Kirchner of
  planting the story as part of a ''political operation'' against him.

  Kirchner's government announced that it has provided protection to Pontaquatro and has helped his family seek refuge abroad.

  Pontaquatro was the highest ranking bureaucrat in Congress, a 20-year functionary who had won the trust of the legislature's many factions. Despite media reports naming Pontaquatro as a likely conduit for the bribes, he had always denied involvement.