MADRID (Reuters) - Eight months ago Spanish examining magistrate Elpidio Jose Silva was investigating a sensational corruption case that briefly landed politically connected former bank boss Miguel Blesa in jail.
Now Silva, whose job combines the roles of prosecutor and judge, is organizing his own criminal defense after Blesa, president of savings bank Caja Madrid from 1996 to 2009, complained he was being persecuted.
The judge’s predicament stems from a quirk that allows the accused in Spain to lodge complaints against judges, one of many factors that have slowed down a string of high-profile fraud cases, damaging confidence in the justice system and raising concerns about political influence, surveys show.
Silva, who denies any wrongdoing, has been removed from the case and could face trial for alleged misconduct in his probe into possible crimes at Caja Madrid before it became part of Bankia, which later required Spain’s biggest-ever bank bailout.
Blesa’s lawyers declined to comment for this story but in court filings have denied Silva’s charges of misappropriation of funds and falsifying a document in a 2008 takeover.
Silva continues to work on other cases and is writing a book. He says he is calling it “Spain: no country for judges.”
Public perception of fraud in Spain is among the highest in Europe, and more than 90 percent in an independent Metroscopia poll said they were frustrated by the time it took to investigate, and they overwhelmingly blamed complaints by the accused.
“Because of the delays, people get the impression there is little interest in investigating, or that there’s some sort of collusion between the government and judges. The slow process gives a sensation of low standards,” said Jose Juan Toharia, president of Metroscopia.
Spain also has proportionally fewer judges than Germany, France, Italy or Portugal, and many get rotated off a case part way through, all of which adds to delays.
Silva has launched a media campaign claiming the accusations against him are politically motivated and have a chilling effect on corruption investigations.
“The complaint against me is abusive and political. They should have thrown it out by now,” the shaven-headed Silva told Reuters in his Madrid apartment, as he fielded calls from organizers of signature drives in his support.
Baltasar Garzon, a Spanish judge internationally known for his pursuit of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, also fought graft in Spain and ran into trouble. He was suspended as a judge in 2010 for illegal wiretapping of suspects in a corruption case, one of several complaints against him.
Garzon, now a global human rights consultant, claims he was politically persecuted for trying to investigate crimes during the 1939-1975 dictatorship of Francisco Franco.
After Franco the justice system was redesigned to safeguard the rights of the accused, but unfounded complaints against judges have led to long delays in several cases, including eight years to convict corrupt politicians and land developers in Marbella and 10 years to bring to trial People’s Party politician Carlos Fabra for tax fraud. Fabra was sentenced to four years but is out on appeal.
Even Spain’s royal family is caught up in a long-running fraud investigation that has still not gone to trial. It is three years since a judge opened an investigation into Inaki Urdangarin, husband of King Juan Carlos’s younger daughter Princess Cristina, for forgery and embezzlement through his charitable foundation. The judge on Tuesday ruled the princess should also face charges.
The royals, who deny any wrongdoing, have not raised any complaints to slow the process, but the judge and the anti-corruption prosecutor have been at odds on how to proceed.
Spain’s political elite has also been rocked by charges that Luis Barcenas, a former treasurer of the ruling People’s Party, stashed up to 48 million euros in Swiss banks and ran a party slush fund fed by cash from construction magnates.
Three years into the investigation, he is in prison charged with money laundering and other crimes, but a trial could still be years away. He denies doing anything illegal.
While few would want a return to the limited rights defendants had in the Franco era, and a handful of cases of improper conduct have been found against judges, the snail’s pace of accountability has damaged faith in public institutions, surveys show.
Opinion polls also consistently show that smaller political parties could benefit at the next election in Spain.
Silva’s probe into Caja Madrid was always going to be sensitive, since like many Spanish savings banks it was closely tied to a political party, and Blesa was a friend of former PP Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar.
Caja Madrid ran into trouble after a property bubble burst in 2008. It was re-christened Bankia after merging in 2010 with six other savings banks, but with billions in bad loans to property developers, it soon needed a 22.5 billion euro bailout.
The bank’s rescue, its disastrous 2011 public share launch, and complex debt instruments disguised as savings deposits have all triggered a number of criminal investigations.
Silva was looking into whether Blesa flouted rules on risk management when Caja Madrid bought City National Bank of Florida in 2008. He ruled in June there was evidence of improper management, misappropriation of funds and falsifying a public document and had Blesa taken into custody.
Blesa was released after posting bail, and his lawyers then complained Silva had overstepped his authority. Madrid’s prosecutor opened an investigation into the judge on accusations of false arrest and official misconduct.
Silva’s replacement on the case issued a summons on Tuesday for Blesa to appear later this month to answer further questions on the Florida deal to determine whether it damaged Caja Madrid. Blesa’s lawyers have not yet responded.
In the meantime Silva is gathering signatures to show he has public support.
“If they don’t convict me, it will be because citizens stood up to put a stop to it.”
Editing by Will Waterman