The case of state attorney José María Campagnoli clearly illustrates how polarized Argentinean society has become.
To some, this 53-year-old jurist is the man who had the courage to investigate a builder named Lázaro Báez, who paid for the mausoleum holding the remains of former president Néstor Kirchner, and also happens to be the biggest public works contractor in the province of Santa Cruz, where Kirchner was governor for 12 years.
To others, Campagnoli is just a tool at the service of the Clarín media group in its campaign to undermine the government of President Cristina Fernández, Kirchner’s widow.
What is certain is that for 20 working days between April and May 2013, Campagnoli investigated Lázaro Báez for possible extortion. As a result, he was suspended from his duties, will probably be dismissed, and is facing impeachment proceedings.
His boss, Attorney General Alejandra Gils Carbó, said in December that it was “highly likely” that Campagnoli was guilty of “abuse of power” and “poor performance” of his duties. She also accused him of turning a case of potential fraud against financier Federico Elaskar into another case in which Elaskar became the victim of an alleged extortion racket run by Lázaro Báez.
Gils Carbó described Campagnoli as “lacking restraint, prudence and circumspection,” and accused him of having “a defiant attitude” that hampered a serious investigation of the crimes he was probing.
I foresaw everything that is happening right now”
A week later, the Attorney General Office’s impeachment tribunal voted four to three in favor of Gils Carbó’s accusations. Campagnoli was suspended, a decision that was ratified by a court on April 11.
Meanwhile, this week another court acquitted Lázaro Báez of the charges of extortion against Elaskar, whose assets were frozen and passport seized to prevent him from leaving the country.
People who work with Campagnoli say the federal justice system is very good at catching small-time crooks while the big fish swim away safely.
Meanwhile, the political trial against Campagnoli is still underway. As the date of his probable dismissal draws near, he bemoans the “fragility” of the public prosecution system.
“In our country attorneys are on the same level as paid judges, both in terms of treatment and independence. But our situation is much less favorable than that of the judges. I can be dismissed with a simple four-to-three vote. But with a magistrate a two-thirds majority is required.”
Question. How do you feel about the fact that Lázaro Báez has been acquitted of the alleged extortion you were investigating?
Answer. Our procedural system does not encourage efficient investigations; sometimes it is an obstacle race, and sometimes that is a good thing because of the liberties and rights that are at stake. What I can say is that I uphold everything I was able to prove while I was investigating the extortion, and that this shows up in my case file.
Q. What about the charges against you of “abuse of power” and “poor performance” of your duties?
The Attorney General said that Campagnoli displayed a defiant attitude
A. It’s unclear what this means. And we have to turn to the other issues raised by the Attorney General’s accusations, which are very vague. I never stopped investigating the first case. But the issue of the extortion against Federico Elaskar had to be investigated. There was no twisting of the goal of the original proceedings; rather, new data was uncovered that led to the investigation into extortion.
Q. But there was already another judge and another attorney investigating that case, according to the Attorney General.
A. What the federal justice was investigating, at my initiative, was alleged money laundering from corruption in public works projects. Anything involving the awarding of unlawful contracts and bribery of public officials has to be investigated by the federal justice. I said as much in my May 1 statement. But I asked the federal attorney whether he was investigating the extortion issue. And the federal attorney replied that this was not being investigated there. I already knew they were not investigating it. But I also foresaw everything that is happening now. That is why I requested a formal statement confirming that they were not investigating the extortion case.
Q. You are also accused of allegedly leaking classified information to national media outlets.
A. Yes, but at no point have I been told what documents they are talking about. And the truth is that the program Periodismo Para Todos [hosted by Jorge Lanata on a channel owned by Grupo Clarín and aired in April 2013] that started this whole investigation is a journalism program. It was a journalistic investigation that brought this issue to the fore. I never had any contact with, nor passed along information to, any journalist. It was not good for my own investigative strategy to have the media access my work. I was requesting house searches, wiretaps… It was in my best interest to get these things done. I knew what was at stake, and my aides had put many hours of work into it.
Q. What was the main conclusion of your investigation during those 20 working days?
This is a persecution to prove that anyone investigating powerful groups will end up just like me”
A. It was confirmed in rather great detail that the public complaint by Federico Elaskar was true.
Q. Meaning that Lázaro Báez had been extorting money from him? What for?
A. To take over the company. The motive is financial. I analyzed all the companies that were used to take money out of the country, and from Switzerland back again to transform it into Argentinean government bonds and convert them into cash again.
Q. How do you think the impeachment will end for you?
A. The forecast is rather unfavorable. This impeachment tribunal formed by seven people already voted my suspension four-to-three. And these four are expected to vote the same way when they deal with my removal. And they will vote the same way because each one of them answers to an agency with ties to the government. Meanwhile, my team has been broken up. There was also persecution of my aides.
Q. Do you feel that there’s been a political persecution against you?
A. Yes. And an attempt to show me up as an example to other attorneys. [...] This is a persecution to prove that anyone wishing to investigate powerful groups will end up just like this attorney. I have been working for the justice system for 30 years. And I will lose the possibility of doing what I do best.
Q. Do you think that this presumed message to other attorneys is working?
A. I cannot put myself inside other people’s minds. What you can see is how many independent investigations into powerful groups are making any progress. It is clearly quite complicated. I am defending myself, I will take this as far as I have to, and I will at least try to make sure they can’t run so fast.