Honduran president linked to graft scandal that sparked protests denies wrongdoing

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Honduras' president acknowledged Wednesday that his election campaign received financing from businesspeople linked to a social security embezzlement and graft scandal that has sparked large protests, but denied any personal involvement.

President Juan Orlando Hernández said his National Party informed him that the funds involved 10 checks totaling about $150,000 in donations during his race for the Central American nation's top office two years ago.

He said the businesspeople who gave the checks to his party were to blame and urged that the funds be returned as soon as possible.

"The investigations must continue no matter who may fall," Hernández said in a televised interview.

Investigators allege that a network led by the then-director of the Social Security Institute fraudulently misspent millions of dollars on goods and services that were marked up more than 100 percent, with kickbacks paid by businesses that benefited. At least part of the money purportedly ended up in the hands of the National Party.

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On Sunday, the prosecutor heading the case, Roberto Ramirez Aldana, fled the country after receiving death threats that authorities considered credible.

Thousands of people who organized through social media marched in cities around the country over the weekend to demonstrate against the scandal, with some calling for Hernández to resign.

The president, whose four-year term began in January 2014, waged an expensive campaign to narrowly defeat Xiomara Castro, the wife of former President Manuel Zelaya, who was ousted in a 2009 coup backed by the National Party and the military.

Hernández said he has no intention of leaving office. He denied his party is responsible for the scandal, but notably mentioned his vice president and former National Party chief, Ricardo Alvarez.

"I do not know at the moment if he has given a statement. Everyone must do so, and the court must issue its ruling," Hernández said.

The former social security chief was captured after fleeing to Nicaragua and has since been imprisoned along with two former vice ministers of the Health and Labor ministries. They and the 18-member board of directors of the Social Security Institute are under investigation. All are members of the National Party.

Protesters plan to march Friday to local offices of the United Nations to demand the creation of an international commission to investigate crime and impunity, similar to a body already operating in neighboring Guatemala.

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