World

Lawyer: Panamanian ex-President Martinelli, accused in $45M corruption probe, may be in Miami

Panama Martinelli during an interview at a hotel in Guatemala City, Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2015.

Panama Martinelli during an interview at a hotel in Guatemala City, Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2015.

Former Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli has been racking up the frequent flyer miles (on his personal plane) as he travels around the world in the wake of the country's Supreme Court vote last week to open a corruption probe against him. The allegations? He inflated $45 million in contracts through social programs during his time in office.

In the last week Martinelli has made brief stops in Guatemala and Miami before his private plane jetted off to Bologna, Italy — although it is unclear if in this last case the Panamanian was onboard. His lawyer, Rogelio Cruz, said the trip was planned before the Supreme Court decision and that he believes the former president is in the U.S.

"It’s not true and it's not proven," Cruz said of the allegations, according to Bloomberg.

"This media circus about my trip is being done out of fear of the accusations I will be making," Martinelli posted on his Twitter account Jan. 30, without giving more details. "They want it to seem like I left and won’t return — they shouldn’t even dream of that."

A statement from the court last Wednesday said all nine judges voted to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Martinelli over allegations he inflated contracts worth $45 million to purchase dehydrated food for a government social program.

The accusation is based on the testimony of a political ally, Giacomo Tamburelli, the former head of the National Assistance Program who has said he was taking orders from the then president to inflate contracts. He is now under house arrest.

Martinelli, a billionaire supermarket magnate, has denied the charges and says he is the target of political persecution by his successor, Juan Carlos Varela, who broke with the government in 2011 while serving as Martinelli's vice president and foreign minister.

Varela later accused Martinelli and his sons of taking kickbacks from an Italian military contractor and successfully campaigned for the presidency on a pledge to clean up politics.

Martinelli traveled Wednesday to Guatemala to attend a session of the Central American parliament amid media speculation at home he would seek asylum. He again denied the accusations, saying that "I have not done anything."

The former leader said he was willing to return to face trial as long as he is guaranteed justice. "I will make that decision in the future, but I am not going to go for a trial arranged by Mr. Varela," he said. He said he would not return immediately and planned to continue a previously scheduled tour to the U.S. and Europe.

The swiftness with which the case against Martinelli and a half-dozen close aides have proceeded has come as a shock to the 3.5 million Panamanians, who are accustomed to impunity after decades of military rule and a rocky transition to democracy following the 1989 U.S. invasion that did little to root out corruption.

In recent weeks a number of former officials have come forward with damaging accusations that would seem to confirm longstanding perceptions of widespread graft during Martinelli's administration.

In one case, prosecutors seized a yacht, mansion and other assets worth $18 million allegedly paid for with kickbacks to another close Martinelli aide who succeeded Tamburelli as head of the government's leading social program. The former official, Rafael Guardia, has also fingered Martinelli and his personal secretary.

"What happened to the National Assistance Program happened at every institution during the last government," said Roberto Eisenamann, founder of the newspaper La Prensa, which rose to prominence in the 1980s by exposing corruption by dictator General Manuel Noriega.

Varela has vowed to keep his hands off government institutions. His approval rating, at over 60 percent, is the highest of any head of state in Latin America.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

Like us on Facebook
Follow us on Twitter & Instagram