The Curious Incident of the Former Public Works Minister in the Night-Time

When concerned neighbours in the Buenos Aires suburb of General Rodríguez spotted a shadowy figure throwing bags – followed by himself – over the wall of the Convent of Our Lady of Fátima at 4am on a Tuesday morning, they dutifully called the police. Little can they or the responding officers have imagined that their nocturnal bag-chucker was José Francisco López, Public Works Minister in the previous Kirchner government; even less that the bags in question would contain $8.9million in cash, a showcase-worth of luxury watches and an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle.

When asked what had brought him to this unusual juncture, Mr López replied that he had stolen the money to “make a donation”. Presumably, this Argentine Robin Hood thought it would be immodest to deposit such a large sum on the nuns’ collection plate after a service…

In a series of preliminary hearings over the last week, Mr López has been represented in court by Fernanda Herrera, a singer and glamour model turned “hot lawyer”.  And, whilst not wishing to cast aspersions about her no-doubt considerable talents as an advocate, it is fair to say that she has a hell of a job on her hands – in his first appearance before a judge, her client shouted repeatedly, beat himself around the head and demanded cocaine.

Some might consider this a bad start to the case for the defence, and things haven’t improved since. In an interview with news network TN yesterday, Ms Herrera stated that Mr López “is not innocent” and that he has confessed how he obtained the money, though she declined to provide details.

The question of how a minor member of the Kirchner government came by so much money has been the source of much speculation since the events of last Tuesday. However, many in Argentina have joined the dots – a former planning minister, a large quantity of concealed cash and a thin cover story – and eyebrows would be raised if this latest turn of events did not relate, at least in part, to the largest scandal in recent Argentinian history – the so-called “Route of the “K” Money”.

In 2012, journalist Jorge Lanata launched Periodismo para todos, a series of television programmes investigating corruption in Argentina. Since then, the show has gained a cult following, in large part due to the magnitude of its scoops.

The centrepiece of the 2013 edition of the show was allegations of a corruption triangle at the heart of government – former president Néstor Kirchner – the “K” –, his wife and successor in the Casa Rosada Cristina and Lázaro Báez, a construction entrepreneur and close Kirchner confidant. Mr Lanata and his team claimed – with evidence obtained from former Kirchnerista financiers Federico Elaskar and Leonardo Fariña – that embezzlement of public funds on an industrial scale had taken place, with Mr Báez’s building firm, Austral Construcciones, channelling money earmarked for public infrastructure investment into private offshore bank accounts belonging to all three, supposedly to the tune of €55 million.

The TV investigation has spawned a panoply of official police and tax authority inquiries, many of which are still ongoing.  Mr Báez – himself an alleged associate of Mr. López – is in the middle of a trial that threatens to suck in several members of the previous government, including the former president herself.

For her part, Ms. Fernández de Kirchner has sought to distance herself from the allegations, the leftist former premiere declaring, in typical style, that corruption is a private sector phenomenon and that she therefore cannot be blamed.

But how long she can keep her hands officially clean remains a moot point. Recent information that suggests Alicia Kirchner, sister-in-law to the former president and Social Development minister in her cabinet, was a regular at the convent that played host to Mr López’s night-time activities brings the latest turn in the “K Money” case uncomfortably close to her door.

And this is but one thread in a tapestry of corruption accusations. Since stepping down from the presidency in December, Ms. Fernández de Kirchner has found herself besieged by allegations of impropriety; indicted by a judge last month on charges that she manipulated the Argentine Central Bank during her final months in office, “CFK” now faces allegations that her 2007 presidential run was partially financed by a pharmaceutical company with links to a narcotics dealer and suspect in a triple murder.

Revelations regarding the shenanigans of the previous government provide a welcome respite for incumbent president Mauricio Macri. In recent weeks, he had come under fire for his use of offshore funds and had been forced into promising to repatriate $1.3 million he had squirrelled away in the Bahamas, pending a federal prosecutor-led inquiry into his tax affairs. Now, with the spotlight of the press and the judiciary focussed on his predecessors in government, he can turn his attention back to matters of state and an ambitious reform programme.

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