BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos on Tuesday acknowledged that his 2010 election campaign received illegal payments from Brazilian conglomerate Odebrecht SA and asked the country’s forgiveness.
Without specifying amounts, the Colombian attorney general’s office has alleged Santos’ successful 2010 and 2014 campaigns received money from Odebrecht, which is engulfed in a region-wide corruption scandal.
Santos said he had no knowledge at the time of the illegal payments and did not authorize acceptance of them. He said he “rejects and condemns” them.
“I am deeply sorry and ask forgiveness from Colombians for this shameful act that should never have happened and that I have just learned about,” Santos said in a statement.
It is illegal in Colombia to receive campaign financing from overseas companies. Santos, who won the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize, did not mention Odebrecht in his statement.
The revelation is likely to put corruption front and center in next year’s election. While Santos, whose popularity is at near record lows, is barred from running for another term, the candidate of his U Party may well be damaged.
His campaign manager Roberto Prieto told local Blu Radio on Tuesday that Odebrecht paid $400,000 for election posters in 2010. He said Santos had no knowledge of the payment.
Prieto could not be immediately reached for comment.
In Colombia, political parties may be disbanded and prevented from backing candidates if a campaign is found guilty of electoral violations. The statute of limitations is three years, so only the 2014 campaign would be at issue.
The funding scandal will remind Colombians of cash paid to the 1994 campaign of former President Ernesto Samper by the Cali drug cartel. Samper was impeached, but Congress cleared him.
U.S. prosecutors contend Odebrecht paid hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes in association with infrastructure projects in 12 countries, including Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Mexico and Venezuela, between 2002 and 2016.
Santos’s 2014 rival is also facing investigation by electoral authorities for allegedly receiving Odebrecht money. Oscar Ivan Zuluaga was the candidate of the right-wing Democratic Center opposition party.
Reporting by Helen Murphy; Editing by Richard Chang and Cynthia Osterman