Demonstrators gather in support of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, former president of Argentina, not pictured, outside court in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Photographer: Diego Levy/Bloomberg)

How a Chauffeur Could Bring Down Argentina’s Political Elite

(Bloomberg) -- A chauffeur’s notes could send dozens of Argentina’s political and business elites to prison. On Aug. 1, Argentine newspaper La Nacion published an investigation that detailed alleged bribes from business executives to officials in the former governments of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and her late husband, Nestor Kirchner. Evidence in the eight notebooks, kept from 2005 to 2015 by the chauffeur of a former government official, has led to the arrests of more than a dozen men. And Kirchner could be next.

1. What was in the chauffeur’s notebooks?

Oscar Centeno, the driver for former planning secretary Roberto Baratta, kept meticulous notes for 10 years with details of bribes that he delivered. His notebooks include names, amounts, addresses and dates, including bribes allegedly delivered to Kirchner’s homes in Buenos Aires. It’s not known why Centeno kept the records. The notebooks chronicled about $53 million in bribes.

2. How did they come to light?

Centeno gave the notebooks to a friend when his former boss, Baratta, was about to go to jail last year on separate charges. And the friend decided on his own in January to give copies of them to La Nacion journalist Diego Cabot, who led the investigation. After the news report came out, Centeno said he burned the notebooks on his grill.

3. Who’s implicated?

So far, more than two dozen men — a mix of former government officials and business leaders — have been detained. Some have confessed to paying bribes and struck plea bargains with prosecutors. A growing list of current and former business executives, including one from engineering giant Techint, have been arrested. The broader scope of the investigation is unknown because the case is under seal and charges haven’t been formally announced.

4. What about Kirchner?

Police raided all of Kirchner’s properties in Argentina in late August after Congress granted a judge’s request for the raids. However, the request for the raids was public for weeks, and it only got approval after Kirchner herself told lawmakers to approve the judge’s request. It’s unknown what, if any, incriminating evidence was found at her properties.

5. What’s the economic and financial impact?

Argentine stocks and bonds have both been hit by the investigation and the uncertainty of its scope. The scandal erupted at a terrible time for the economy. Argentina suffered through a currency crisis in May and most economists expect it will be in a recession later this year. Argentine Treasury Minister Nicolas Dujovne, who is not implicated in the case, noted in late August that the probe had made it more difficult for Argentine companies to get financing.

6. What happens next?

The judge overseeing the case, Claudio Bonadio, has asked the Senate to vote to remove Kirchner’s immunity from prosecution. It’s unclear when or if lawmakers will take up that request. Bonadio made the same request last year on different charges against Kirchner, and it was never voted on. Plea agreements Bonadio has obtained with other suspects may broaden the case’s scope. It’s also unclear when Bonadio will lift the seal on the case, revealing the charges he’s filed.

7. What does this mean politically?

The big question is whether the investigation leads to jail time for Kirchner, who was president from 2008 to 2015; it’s widely assumed she will seek another presidential term in the 2019 election. Kirchner is a bitter foe of current President Mauricio Macri, who saw his approval ratings tumble this year amid the economic downturn. Analysts say the investigation is good news for Macri as Kirchner’s election odds will likely decline. Kirchner’s positive image has fallen 10 percentage points to 31 percent since the probe began, while Macri’s rose to 33 percent from 27 percent, according to research firm Elypsis.

8. What happened to the chauffeur?

Centeno was arrested and later freed after agreeing to cooperate with prosecutors. He is the key witness in the investigation, especially given that his notebooks no longer exist. He is currently under police guard.

9. Is this anything like Brazil’s ‘Carwash’ scandal?

Not yet. The bribe amounts revealed in Argentina so far are significantly lower than the $1.6 billion detailed in Brazil’s widespread corruption probe. Brazilian prosecutors also have much more legal independence than their Argentine counterparts. This means that Argentina investigations are often politicized, which undermines prosecutors’ credibility. The scope of Brazil’s probe also engulfed the entire Brazilian political class. So far, only officials from Kirchner’s government have been implicated; Macri’s government hasn’t yet been dragged in.

The Reference Shelf

  • The original news investigation in La Nacion.
  • Bloomberg news article on what the scandal is doing to the economy.
  • How bond markets are getting hit by the scandal.
  • Bloomberg QuickTakes on Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s senate race in 2017 and Brazil’s Carwash Scandal.

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