The crisis facing the Popular Party (PP) over allegations of secret payoffs to its leaders and possible illegal contributions made its way to the organization's powerful Madrid chapter on Wednesday when battle lines were drawn at a heated meeting.
The closed-door conference was filled with "quarrels" and "confrontations" between party chapter president Esperanza Aguirre and Madrid Mayor Ana Botella, according to at least six people who were present.
The fray broke out when Botella complained of not getting support from the national party during the Madrid Arena crisis, in which five young women were crushed to death at an overcrowded Halloween Party last year. Three of Botella's commissioners resigned.
According to several witnesses present, Aguirre tore into the mayor, criticizing the way she has handled the entire affair, besides criticizing her for signing a petition against the transformation of the La Princesa hospital into a center for elderly care.
Aguirre called for"a democratic rejuvenation" of Spain's political structures
Despite resigning last September as Madrid regional premier and starting a private-sector job for a Barcelona head-hunting firm, Aguirre still remains the powerful leader of the Madrid PP.
After the heated meeting, Aguirre appeared before the cameras to defend what she believes is "a democratic rejuvenation" of Spain's political structures, starting with the introduction of open slates where voters can elect their own candidates to represent them. She said reforms were needed to keep "professional politicians" from making a living from politics. "You can count on me to help with that," she said, adding that it didn't mean she was ready to return to the party's frontlines.
But behind closed doors, Aguirre was more aggressive, openly criticizing PP secretary general María Dolores de Cospedal for her handling of the entire Bárcenas matter. She also said that if it had been up to her, she would have sacked Health Minister Ana Mato, who, according to police reports, received gifts, along with her husband Jesús Sepúlveda, the former mayor of Pozuelo, from the Gürtel network of corrupt businessmen.
At least four people who witnessed Aguirre's tirade said she ripped into De Cospedal for not being more energetic in publicly defending the allegations that former PP treasurer Luis Bárcenas recorded on balance sheets the bonuses handed out to party leaders, including Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, and are now under investigation by anticorruption prosecutors. Aguirre has sided with those in the PP national committee who believe the party should sue Bárcenas.
Aguirre also said she would have taken immediate action against Sepúlveda, who continues to receive a PP salary as an advisor who works from home. Carlos Floriano, PP deputy secretary general, explained it was illegal to sack Sepúlveda just because he was an official target in the Gürtel inquiry.
When asked at the news conference, Aguirre gave a subliminal response. "I have separated from the party one councilor, three deputies and several mayors before they were named as targets of investigation, and I never had anything to do with them since," she said. "We have confronted cases where it was later determined there had been corruption."