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Spain's Premier Is Drawn Into a Widening Graft Scandal Gripping His Party

On Thursday, El País, Spain's leading newspaper, published what it said were excerpts from the party's financial accounts that showed regular payouts to leading party members above their official salaries. Mr. Rajoy first appeared in the ledgers in 1997 and received sums averaging $34,000 a year through 2008, the newspaper said. The money, it said, came from "donations" from companies, particularly construction companies.

Former party treasurers, including Luis Bárcenas, who has been at the heart of the scandal, are suspected of maintaining the ledgers. Two weeks ago, the Swiss authorities informed Spanish investigators that Mr. Bárcenas had deposited as much as $29 million in Swiss bank accounts. El País, which said it gained access to the Popular Party's internal accounts from 1990 to 2008, said that Mr. Rajoy declined to comment on its report until internal and external audits ordered by him into the party's finances were complete. The audits were ordered after news of the Swiss accounts emerged.

But the report is certain to compound the troubles facing his government as it tries to navigate Spain's economic crisis in a climate of increasing anger and suspicion from the public of all politicians, as scandals related to Spain's boom years before the 2008 economic collapse come to light in all corners of the country.

"For Rajoy, whether the claims about illegal funds prove true or false, this is incredibly damaging because it weakens not only his party but his whole government at a very delicate moment in terms of trying to ensure Spain's economic recovery," said Fernando Seco, director of the Fundación Antares Foro, a policy debate forum in Seville. "If the Popular Party cannot shed light and justify its funding, we could enter a new period of political uncertainty."

On Thursday, María Dolores de Cospedal, the secretary general of the Popular Party, denied that the party maintained a parallel account, saying at a news conference in Madrid that "the Popular Party only has one set of accounts, and it is clean, transparent and submitted to the official accounting authority."

El País reported that Ms. de Cospedal was listed in the ledgers as having twice received payments of about $10,000 in 2008, after she was confirmed to her post at the party's convention that June.

During a parliamentary debate on Wednesday, Mr. Rajoy made no mention of Mr. Bárcenas while he urged lawmakers to agree on a more transparent system of party financing. But that did nothing to quiet demands for a fuller explanation.

"Mr. Rajoy will now have to give some kind of clearer explanation," said Gaspar Ariño Ortiz, a lawyer in Madrid and former member of Parliament from the Popular Party.

In the context of a recession and record unemployment, Mr. Ariño Ortiz said, "citizens who are struggling to make ends meet are seeing that huge amounts of money have been handled within a Spanish party funding system that is completely obscure, anonymous and open to corruption."

Mr. Bárcenas, the former party treasurer, resigned in 2009 after being indicted in the early stages of a continuing investigation into a scheme of kickbacks and illegal payments that other Popular Party politicians are accused of being involved in. He has denied wrongdoing, and through his lawyer, he denied ever keeping a parallel and undeclared set of books in order to make payments to politicians.

When he resigned, Mr. Bárcenas took nine boxes of documents with him from his offices, a trove that stands as an implicit threat to party officials, commentators say, that if he is taken down in the scandals, he plans to take others with him. The recent disclosure that Mr. Bárcenas kept vast sums of money in Switzerland is just one of about 300 corruption investigations being conducted in Spain, many linked to questionable deals made among bankers, developers and politicians during the nation's decade-long property boom. Few have been convicted so far.

The corruption investigations have also tainted Spain's institutional fabric, from the monarchy to the Supreme Court, whose chief justice was forced to resign last year over questionable business expense claims. On Wednesday, a judge demanded that Iñaki Urdangarin, the son-in-law of King Juan Carlos, and his former business partner post bond of $11 million as the judiciary deepens its investigation into the possible embezzlement of millions in public money allocated to sports and tourism events.

Mr. Urdangarin has not been formally charged, but last year he became the first member of the royal family to appear in court in modern Spanish history.

The report in El País added to the disillusionment of many Spaniards, including some longstanding supporters of the Popular Party. One was Julian Acevedo Ruiz, a grocery store owner who said he had always voted for the party, including Mr. Rajoy in 2011.

"I wish that I had never voted," he said, "because really none of our politicians are worthy of the trust that we placed in them."

[Source: By Raphael Minder, The New York Times, 31Jan13]

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