Argentina’s Most Powerful Politician Found Guilty of Fraud

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BUENOS AIRES — Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, a political titan in Argentina, was found guilty on Tuesday and sentenced to six years in prison and banned from holding public office for a fraud scheme that saw public roadworks contracts routed to a family friend when she was the first lady and president.

The verdict was a major blow to Ms. Kirchner, the current vice president and a deeply polarizing figure who has helped divide Argentina between those who support her and her left-wing movement, called Kirchnerismo, and those who say she helped ruin a country that struggled with high inflation, poverty and failed economic policies.

The six-year sentence was less than the 12 years demanded by prosecutors. However, neither the punishment nor the ban is final until all her appeals are used up. Most likely, the case will eventually be heard by the Argentine Supreme Court.

Until then, Ms. Kirchner can continue to hold office and run for president again in 2023, though she has not announced her plans.

A three-judge panel in Buenos Aires, the capital, delivered its verdict on a public broadcast following a three-year trial that charged Ms. Kirchner with forwarding hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded contracts to a business partner to build roads in Patagonia, at the tip of South America.

The panel found her not guilty of a second charge of leading an “unauthorized association” that oversaw that kickback scheme.

Ms. Kirchner reviewed the results from her office in the National Congress, where she is also a senator.

“This conviction, compatriots, is not a conviction under the laws of the Constitution or the Administrative Laws or the Penal Code,” she said in a video live stream shortly afterwards. “This is a parallel state and a mafia. Judicial mafia.”

Ms. Kirchner has spent 30 years in the public eye, including as first lady, president, and currently as senator and vice president. In that time, she has been previously investigated on about a dozen charges, mostly related to corruption, although four cases have been dropped and two others acquitted. This was the first investigation to go to court.

Analysts say Tuesday’s sentencing could add to the challenges she already faces and appeal to a wider audience ahead of next year’s presidential election. But it also fanned her supporters, thousands of whom poured into the capital on Tuesday.

Polls measuring the approval ratings of potential presidential candidates give her about 29 percent support among voters, but Ms. Kirchner has not yet announced whether she will run.

Twelve other people were also charged in the corruption case, including Lázaro Báez, the Kirchner associate who received the road works contracts, and two former Kirchnerista government ministers who have been convicted in other corruption cases.

Mr Báez was found guilty of fraud and sentenced to six years in prison. He was already serving a 12-year prison sentence for money laundering in a separate case. José López, a former secretary of public works, was also sentenced to six years in prison for fraud and a ban on holding public office

The division over Ms. Kirchner became apparent recently in the Patagonian village of El Chaltén, where its 1,700 residents had to take advantage of the unfinished road construction projects related to Ms. Kirchner’s case.

Before the sentencing was announced, Dante Ardenghi, 65, a local doctor, said he believed the media and opposition parties fabricated or exaggerated allegations against Ms Kirchner to bring down her political movement.

What they really believe, he said, is that leftist presidents “shouldn’t exist in South America.”

But Luis Ledesma, 59, a high school substitute teacher, said he thought the Kirchners were corrupt.

“Anyone who came close to or was somehow connected to the inner circle of these people became rich in a very short time,” he said. “We’re talking about secretaries, drivers.”

The kickback scheme Ms. Kirchner was found guilty of took place in Santa Cruz County during the 12 years that the Kirchners ruled the country: Ms. Kirchner’s late husband, Néstor Kirchner, was president from 2003 to 2007 and Ms. Kirchner from 2007 to 2015.

Santa Cruz has always been their political stronghold: Mr. Kirchner was born in the capital, Rio Gallegos, and served as governor of the province between 1991 and 2003. His sister, Alicia Kirchner, is the governor today.

The focus of Ms. Kirchner’s lawsuit was largely on 51 road works contracts awarded to companies associated with Mr. Báez, who went from being a bank employee in Santa Cruz to founding a construction company in the days before Mr. Kirchner became president. became in 2003. . The prosecution said that from 2003 to 2015, the plan defrauded the Argentine state of more than 5 billion pesos, or about $926 million, according to officials.

According to the prosecution, the contracts were often awarded at high prices, went over budget or received other special allowances. Nearly half of road construction projects are never completed.

“These were systematic acts of corruption promoted and perpetuated by the country’s top political leaders,” said Diego Luciani, the chief prosecutor, in his closing remarks earlier this year.

The evidence presented at the trial included WhatsApp messages between Mr López, the ex-secretary of public works Mr Báez and the president of one of his construction companies.

The prosecution said the reports revealed a plan to conceal evidence in the waning days of the Kirchner government in 2015, making final payments on contracts to Mr Báez, firing his employees and halting roadworks.

Some posts contain references to “La Señora” who “had to make decisions”. The prosecution argued that “La Señora” was a reference to Ms. Kirchner, although she was never identified by name.

The Vice President has faced several other court battles and emerged victorious in some of them.

Last year, a court dismissed charges against her over allegations that she conspired to cover up Iran’s alleged role in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people. The allegations against Ms Kirchner were first made in 2015 by a prosecutor, Alberto Nisman, who was found dead of a gunshot wound in his apartment days later.

His death was never solved and the case has been a source of frenzied speculation and political infighting ever since.

A separate case accusing her of defrauding the government through the dollar futures market was dropped last year.

Natalie Alcoba reported from Buenos Aires, and Ana Lankes from El Chalten, Argentina.