Bribery scandal met with near-silence in Dominican Republic

Friday, May 19, 2017

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SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic (AP) — One of the most sprawling corruption scandals in modern history has deep roots in the Dominican Republic: The Brazilian company behind the operation placed its international “bribery bureau” in this Caribbean country and shoveled out nearly US$100 million in bribes to local officials.Yet five months after the scheme was exposed, nobody has been charged here and no corrupt officials have been named — infuriating both political reformers and opposition parties. By contrast, investigations in Brazil, Colombia, Panama and Peru have produced hundreds of charges, including cases against former presidents.

Government critics hope the silence will break Friday when Odebrecht is expected to reveal the recipients of its bribes in the Dominican Republic under a deal that protected the Brazilian construction company from prosecution and allowed it to keep doing business in the country.

Odebrecht's executives confessed to US prosecutors that they paid around US$788 million to officials in 10 Latin American countries and two more in Africa in order to get multimillion-dollar contracts with local governments.

They said they spent US$92 million on bribes in the Dominican Republic alone as the company won 17 contracts to build highways, dams and a big coal-burning power plant. One of the key figures in the scheme worked as President Danilo Medina's adviser in two presidential campaigns.

When Brazil's own corruption investigations began to turn up the heat on Odebrecht in 2014, the company moved its office in charge of handling bribes — the innocuously named Bureau of Structural Operations — to Santo Domingo, apparently to distance it from Brazilian prosecutors.

Attorney General Jean Alain Rodriguez, a member of the ruling party's central committee, struck a deal with Odebrecht for a US$184 million fine and an agreement to protect its executives from prosecution in exchange for information that might be used to prosecute local graft recipients. It's the first deal of its kind Odebrecht reached outside Brazil.

That has prompted anti-corruption activists to hold marches protesting government inaction and to file court cases demanding an independent investigation. Many say they are pessimistic that Friday's expected announcement will reveal the full extent of corruption in the Dominican Republic.

“For Odebrecht, the Dominican Republic wasn't just any country,” said Manuel Robles, a member of the Green Movement, a group created to protest against corruption and is demanding an independent probe into the bribery scheme and audits of all Odebrecht's local contracts.

“The Dominican people have been vilely affected by a business mafia complicit with politicians and thieving bureaucrats,” Robles said.

Odebrecht's contracts in the Dominican Republic since 2001 totaled US$5 billion — seven percent of the annual GDP in a country where most people earn US$200 a month or less.

“You can follow the money through here. There must be records, information,” said Rosalia Sosa, director of the activist group Citizen Participation, which has called for a more thorough investigation.

Fifteen of the contracts were signed during the 13-year tenure of Medina's Dominican Liberation Party, now led by former President Leonel Fernandez. The party's popularity is based largely on Latin America's highest rate of economic growth and extensive social programs.

Fernandez has refused to discuss the bribes. Medina in February defended the deal that allowed Odebrecht executives to avoid prosecution.

The Medina administration's signature infrastructure project is a US$2 billion, 720-megawatt coal-burning plant about 38 miles (60 kilometers) west of Santo Domingo that was contracted to Odebrecht in 2013 even though the company's bid was the highest of all those submitted and more than US$500 million above the limit set by the country's Congress.

In January, Medina created a special commission to investigate the bidding process.

“I'm absolutely certain that the bidding committee and the technical teams carried out a transparent process and awarded the contract to the party that won it, the one that made the best offer,” said Ruben Bichara, head of the Dominican Republic's state energy regulator.

The plant is expected to go into operation this year.

A major focus of critics here is Joao Santana, who worked on Medina's 2012 campaign and was arrested in Brazil last year while advising on Medina's re-election effort. He also had been a campaign strategist for several presidents in other countries: Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva and Dilma Roussef in Brazil, Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, and Mauricio Funes in El Salvador.

Medina's government has said investigations will clear Medina and his aides of any wrongdoing and show they received no money from Odebrecht.

“We financed our own campaign and we paid Joao Santana ourselves,” Medina said in March.

Peru's attorney general is investigating three former presidents, has jailed five government officials and has requested the jailing of former President Alejandro Toledo for allegedly receiving US$20 million in Odebrecht bribes to help the company win a highway project. Toledo is a fugitive last seen in the US. Prosecutors say 100 former officials could be jailed in the case.

Venezuelan authorities have frozen Odebrecht's assets in the country, searched its offices in Caracas and asked Brazilian and Swiss officials for information. They have brought no charges, however, and witnesses in court testimony have implicated Maduro. The president has not commented publicly on the allegations. The government has no commented either. Odebrecht executives confessed they paid US$98 million in bribes in Venezuela.

Ecuador has detained a business magnate and a former electricity minister and is reviewing 30 contracts awarded to Odebrecht since 1980. Odebrecht says it paid US$33.5 million in bribes in Ecuador. It's been banned from the country due to the scandal.




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