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Judge junket

Supreme Court chief justice has found himself all alone among his colleagues over his all-expenses-paid trips to Marbella

For centuries (and decidedly during the Franco years) the popular Spanish term for living on Easy Street was "to live like a priest" - evocative of a lifestyle that was enviable, placid, restful and given to gluttony. In recent years this term seems to have fallen out of use somewhat, in favor of the equally traditional "live like a lord," or "like a king."

Be that as it may, last week the Spanish judicial world was abuzz with the news of the report filed with the Prosecutor's Office by a member of the General Council of the Judiciary, José Manuel Gómez Benítez, against the president of the Council, Carlos Dívar, who is also the chief justice of the Supreme Court, for an alleged crime of misappropriation of public funds.

The doings in question are six visits - and 14 others listed in a n extension to the complaint - to a luxury hotel in Puerto Banús, near Marbella on the south coast, all on long weekends of at least four days each. This is what is sometimes called the "Caribbean work week," because you work only three days, instead of five like most of us - those who are not yet among the more than five million in unemployment lines. These sumptuous visits were made by Dívar between November 2008 and March of this year, and the expenses involved were charged to the Council budget as traveling costs for official events, though the report points out that, on the dates when these visits occurred, there were "no known official events," nor do these often taken place on weekends.

What these outings portray is a high-living man, far from the traditional austere image of judges

The chief justice of the Supreme Court, according to the information available, which has not been denied, traveled in the fast train, club class, to Málaga, where he was met by his entourage, consisting of two or three official cars and up to seven bodyguards, before proceeding to Marbella, where he spent the night. In the settlement of expenses, according to the report, the judge charged to the Council budget the bills for lodging, which included meals beside the hotel pool and room service, as well as drinks at the pool bar, the lounge and the minibar in his room. In every one of these visits, the expenses charged to "representation" and "protocol" included several dinners for two people in several luxury restaurants and hotels in Marbella, especially the Marbella-Club Hotel Golf Resort & Spa, but also Puente Romano and Hotel-Casino Torrequebrada.

Dívar has not denied the reality of these trips to Puerto Banús, their duration of four days or more, nor even the luxury of the places where he stayed and dined in company. What he has denied is that the trips were private, asserting that it was precisely on account of their public character that he charged the expenses to the Council budget, though he has offered no information as to what sort of official activity they involved. He has also underlined that all bills relative to his private life were paid out of his pocket.

Yet independently of whether they were public or private - which will be relevant to the question of misappropriation - these trips certainly reveal an image far different from what the Supreme Court chief justice is wont to project in public: that of an austere man who goes to Mass every day. On the contrary, what these outings portray is a high-living man; a big spender, not at all austere, and accustomed to luxury, precisely at a time when the crisis is hitting Spain hard, and where cutbacks in workers' salaries are the order of the day.

The members of Council, who have long known about the trips, have declined to speak in Dívar's favor, considering that he alone must defend himself against the accusations.

Who knows? Perhaps the high magistrate's visits to Puerto Banús will finally banish the old expression "live like a priest," in favor of "live like a Dívar."