For the first time in its history, the Popular Party (PP) has launched an internal inquiry into an entire group of regional officials who are under court investigation for corruption and illegal party financing.
The unprecedented move affects a veteran leader of the conservative party, former Valencia mayor Rita Barberá, and around 50 aides, including councilors and advisers.
The party will ask them for explanations in connection with Operation Taula, an anti-corruption investigation launched in late January in the Valencia region, which was under PP control between 1995 and 2015.
I committed no crime and I will not resign
Senator Rita Barberá
Sources familiar with the inquiry said that everyone under investigation is believed to have participated in a corrupt network that charged contractors commissions in exchange for awarding them public contracts. These sources said investigators were also contemplating the possibility that part of the money was used for illegal party financing by the Valencia branch of the PP.
The PP, which is struggling with a series of graft scandals, of which the Valencia probe is the latest, had been waiting for the judge to lift the seal on the Taula case, and to see Barberá’s reaction to the investigation, before launching its own internal inquiry.
Barberá, a regional heavyweight who governed the city of Valencia for 24 years, had until now boasted about her party’s support. Acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy had said on Tuesday that her explanations at a press conference in Valencia left him feeling “calm” about the issue.
But other party leaders have openly dissented from this view. Fernando Martínez-Maillo, the deputy organization secretary, spent all of Sunday night poring over the 1,000 pages of court papers detailing the Taula investigation, and could not believe his eyes.
The material included revelations about court-ordered secret recordings showing “unacceptable” behavior by political leaders, admitted Martínez-Maillo after announcing the PP probe into the Valencia team.
The party will now appoint an instructor to summon the individuals under scrutiny, take statements from them and propose adequate measures. Rita Barberá will be among them.
The decision comes just hours after Barberá had accepted an offer by the judge presiding the Taula case to provide voluntary testimony. “The how and the when is still to be determined,” said Barberá, who became a senator after losing the mayor’s office at the May 2015 municipal elections. As such, she enjoys partial immunity from the lower courts, a concept known as aforamiento.
Barberá has made a point of saying that “absolutely nobody” within the PP has asked her to give up her senatorial seat, and that she has no plans to do so. “I committed no crime and I will not resign,” she said.
On Tuesday, Barberá had shown up at the Senate for a rare appearance in the chamber since her designation. It was while she was still inside that she learned about the PP inquiry into herself and her team.
Asked whether he thought Barberá should step down and whether the party was uncomfortable with her presence in the Senate, former Balearics premier José Ramón Bauzá said: “It is up to her and her alone to decide whether she goes.”
English version by Susana Urra.