BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - A member of former President Cristina Fernandez’s cabinet was sentenced to nearly six years in prison on Wednesday, one of the highest-profile convictions in a corruption crackdown that has also ensnared Fernandez.
Julio De Vido, who served for 12 years as planning minister under Fernandez and her late husband and predecessor Nestor Kirchner, was sentenced to five years and eight months on charges that he siphoned money from public works projects, indirectly causing a 2012 wreck of a passenger train that left 51 people dead and 700 injured.
“I am here because of perverse political, media and judicial persecution that I have been subject to since December 2015,” De Vido said during his trial, referring to the date President Mauricio Macri took office.
De Vido is one of the highest-ranking former officials from the Kirchner and Fernandez era to be stripped of immunity and prosecuted. Fernandez has been indicted on graft charges, but she is immune from arrest as a sitting senator in the country’s national legislature.
She has denied receiving bribes and challenged investigators to scour her home region of Patagonia if they believed she had hidden cash.
Speculation is rife that Fernandez could try to run against Macri in next year’s presidential elections, although she has not said she has any plans to seek the presidency again.
“If she is the leading opposition presidential candidate, it is much tougher to put her in jail,” said Mark P. Jones, director of the Argentina Program for Rice University’s Baker Institute.
Despite the corruption scandal, Fernandez and her Peronist movement still enjoy popularity among about a third of Argentine voters, Jones said. Fernandez won two presidential elections through nationalist appeals and generous social welfare programs.
De Vido is also under investigation for his alleged involvement in a broad corruption network in which Fernandez and dozens of former officials allegedly accepted hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes from construction companies to secure public works contracts.
The ‘notebooks’ scandal, as it is known, surfaced in August after local media obtained diaries kept by the chauffeur of a former government official, which investigators have said cataloged bribe payments from construction companies that were delivered to government offices and Fernandez’s private residences.
Reporting by Scott Squires, Cassandra Garrison and Nicolas Misculin; Writing by Scott Squires Editing by Ross Colvin, Toni Reinhold