Judiciary at odds over chief justice’s luxury jaunts as accuser sees gun turned on him
Legal watchdog seeks ways to play down scandal over Dívar’s trips
Chief justice believes he can survive in post but threatens to take others down
Fallout from the publicly funded weekend jaunts taken by Chief Justice Carlos Dívar have created deep divisions among the nation’s highest judicial officers.
At a long and tense meeting, held behind closed doors on Thursday, members of the General Council of the Judiciary (CGPJ) legal watchdog found themselves at odds over the controversy, brought about by the filing of a criminal complaint earlier this month against Dívar for 20 lavish trips he made to Marbella’s Puerto Banús at the taxpayer’s expense.
Five members have demanded that Dívar step down as chief justice as well as CGPJ president, but seven members came out in favor of the president, demanding that council member José Manuel Gómez Benítez resign for filing the complaint with prosecutors in the first place. The five-hour extraordinary session was held in complete secrecy — no cellphones or laptops were permitted inside the meeting room — to ensure that the discussions over Dívar’s future would not be leaked to the press.
“Given the inadequacy of the explanations [regarding the facts about Dívar’s trips] we ask for your resignation because of the injuries caused not only to the judicial branch [but also to] all judges,” four members wrote in a statement. Gómez Benítez, who did not sign the statement, is the fifth member to have called for Dívar’s resignation.
According to them, the fact that the Attorney General’s Office decided this week not to investigate Dívar does not mean that he should be cleared by the CGPJ.
The 70-year-old chief justice has come under fire for 20 trips he took to Puerto Banús between 2008 and March of this year, charging 12,996 euros to the judiciary. He stayed at several resort hotels, including Marbella Club Golf Resort & Spa and Puente Romano. Although Dívar traveled by train — in business class — at least seven bodyguards and official vehicles were dispatched to accompany him. Dívar also filed for reimbursements for expensive dinners for two.
The chief justice maintains that all the trips were official, but his detractors on the CGPJ doubt that. According to sources at the meeting, Dívar told the panel that he is not obliged to reveal the identity of his companions during those trips, and explained that he separated his personal and official expenses in an appropriate fashion.
But the storm from the scandal is now hovering over Gómez Benítez. Seven fellow CGPJ members called for his resignation on Thursday, because he went directly to the Attorney General’s Office without bringing the complaint before the panel first.
Dívar has said that he learned about Gómez Benítez’s complaint via EL PAÍS, when a reporter called the day it was filed to ask for his reaction.
Since the Supreme Court’s prosecutor, Juan José Martín Casallo, announced on Monday that he was shelving the investigation, there have been numerous meetings among CGPJ members to discuss ways to temper animosities and come up with damage-control strategies to keep the public from believing that the nation’s top judicial officers are frivolously spending taxpayers’ money.
The CGPJ is made up of 20 members, plus the president. The majority of the members are judges, but there are also prosecutors and lawyers who serve on the panel. There are many more on the council who believe that Dívar should be reprimanded but they did not vote against him.
The five who voted for Dívar’s dismissal are liberals. Of the seven who voted for Benítez to be removed, five are conservatives and two are liberals.
Dívar has no intention of stepping down because he believes he hasn’t done anything wrong, said Gabriela Bravo, the CGPJ spokesman at a news conference after the meeting. According to those close to him, the chief justice believes that he will survive this scandal and emerge from it even stronger.
There was, apparently, talk at the meeting about modifying the 1996 code that gives members the privilege of not having to justify their official expenses, but no vote was taken on that issue.
Dívar was asked about another trip — one that wasn’t included on the list of 20 that formed part of the official complaint. The trip that Dívar took — the details of which were not revealed — was a personal one. In explaining it, the chief justice said that he had to go and meet a certain person. But when that particular individual was called to confirm the story, they denied meeting Dívar on any of those days.
The fact is that the majority of the CGPJ members know that Dívar’s trips to Puerto Banús were not official, and they also know precisely who he was with, but they are unwilling to rock the boat further.
Last Friday, Dívar asked for, and got, copies of the expense accounts of all CGPJ members, including those covering their trips. His rationale, according to sources, was that if he went down, he would take others with him. The only way the CGJP will be able to get rid of Dívar is for a majority to agree on letting him go, sources say.
But there are calls on the outside for his resignation. The Progressive Union of Prosecutors and Judges for Democracy — two of the legal profession’s biggest groups — have demanded that Dívar step aside. At 70, the chief justice would have to retire as well as give up his 130,000-euro salary, plus the perks of using official vehicles and having bodyguards assigned to him.
The curious aspect of this entire internal fight is that it could benefit Dívar. No member wants to be publicly associated with the chief justice. But if he were to go, it would mean that his post would be taken over by vice president Fernando de Rosa, seeing that members would not be able to form a consensus to elect a new president. De Rosa would only preside over the CGPJ because the Supreme Court chief justice’s spot would go to Juan Antonio Xiol, the justice with the highest tenure on the top court.