BOGOTA – Colombian lawmakers have opened a preliminary probe into whether former president Juan Manuel Santos accepted illegal campaign contributions from Brazilian construction Odebrecht in 2014, congressman Ricardo Ferro said on Wednesday.
The aim is to “determine whether there are grounds to proceed to a formal investigation,” the chairman of the lower house’s Investigation and Accusation Committee told reporters.
The 15-member panel is responsible for reviewing allegations against current and former high officials, including the president and senior judges, as a possible first step toward impeachment and/or criminal prosecution.
Ferro, a member of the governing Centro Democratico party, said the committee decided to launch the investigation based on journalist Vicky Davila’s published interview with former Sen. Bernardo Miguel Elias Vidal, popularly known as “Ñoño” Elias, now serving time in prison for his part in the Odebrecht scandal.
Arrested in August 2017, Elias eventually pleaded guilty to charges that he and his political allies accepted nearly 17 billion pesos (some $6.5 million) in bribes in 2012 to ensure that a lucrative highway contract went to Odebrecht.
Elias has been subpoenaed to appear before the Investigation Committee on June 17 and an attorney representing Santos will be present for the hearing, Ferro said, adding that the panel’s enquiries will extend beyond the Odebrecht case to other matters “Ñoño” discussed with Davila.
The head of Santos’ successful 2014 re-election campaign, Roberto Prieto, was sentenced to five years in prison for taking money from Odebrecht.
Odebrecht and its petrochemical unit, Braskem, agreed in December 2016 to pay at least $3.5 billion to resolve charges with authorities in the United States, Brazil and Switzerland arising out of their schemes to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes to government officials around the world.
Odebrecht, which admitted in the settlement that the scheme began as early as 2001, was initially believed to have paid $11 million in bribes in Colombia to win public-works contracts.
But Colombian Attorney General Nestor Humberto Martinez said in July 2017 that corrupt officials in the Andean nation in fact received a total of $27 million in bribes from the Salvador, Brazil-based engineering giant.