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Should public money be spent on political aides?

Carromero case casts light on Madrid City Hall practice of supplying grassroots councilors with advisors, at a cost of 10 million euros per year

Ángel Carromero is third from the right in this PP line-up with Esperanza Aguirre (center), José María Aznar (to her left) and Mayor Ana Botella (second from left).
Ángel Carromero is third from the right in this PP line-up with Esperanza Aguirre (center), José María Aznar (to her left) and Mayor Ana Botella (second from left).

The city of Madrid, which has been run by the Popular Party (PP) for the last 23 years, spends an annual 10 million euros on advisors who are arbitrarily appointed and paid generously with taxpayers' money, without ever going through a public competition to secure their posts. They are there simply because a politician decided to put them there.

Although Mayor Ana Botella recently announced an upcoming layoff plan at City Hall, at the present time there are 229 people employed as advisors, most of whom (176) were appointed by the PP. Their tasks are political in nature: they reinforce local government, especially at the district level, by representing the councilors at events where there is interaction with citizens; they also defend party interests.

Madrid is not a unique case: other municipalities, as well as regional governments and the central administration, employ such unofficial advisors as well. These assistants are often viewed warily by other government workers, as they effectively carry out the tasks of an elected official and of a public servant without being either one or the other.

This does not mean that they are not prepared for the job, or that they have not proven their worth. In general, they work endless hours, are at their boss's disposal at all times, and they do not benefit from any of the perks of being a civil servant in Spain. They cannot be said to enjoy job security as a functionary understands it, but, on the other hand, if they shine, there may be greater prizes on offer.

These advisors do get paid a public salary, yet only answer to the person who unilaterally appointed them. This is so much so, that if their boss loses their job, so do they, automatically and without any severance pay.

Probably the best-known case in point is that of Ángel Carromero, who was advisor to Moncloa district councilor Begoña Larraínzar when he was arrested on July 22 in Cuba and found guilty of the death of two regime dissidents following a road accident. After being sentenced to four years in a Cuban prison, the Spanish government negotiated his return so Carromero could serve out his sentence in Spain.

These assistants are often viewed warily by other government workers

He returned on December 29, and obtained day release almost immediately, on January 11; since that rapid-reaction ruling, he simply needs to spend weekday nights at a social rehabilitation center. He was eligible for this penitentiary privilege partly because he kept his advisory position for the Madrid government all this time.

The only drawback resulting from the Cuban incident was that his annual gross wages of 50,474 euros were reduced to a third (though not before September). Carromero, who is 27 years old and lacks a university degree of any kind, is widely suspected of having the job chiefly because of his personal ties to the conservative party: he happens to be deputy secretary of Nuevas Generaciones, the PP's youth wing.

But his is not an isolated case: most advisors on the city's payroll are party people. This does not necessarily make them incompetent - some of them have excellent backgrounds. But the degree of inbreeding is striking: besides ties of personal trust between a politician and his or her aide, there are numerous instances of family ties. For instance, there is Cristina Aguirre, sister to former Madrid premier Esperanza Aguirre, who works as an advisor to Hortaleza district councilor Almudena Maillo, who was once herself advisor to Esperanza. And then there is Ciudad Lineal district councilor Elena Sánchez Gallar, whose personal advisor happens to be her own daughter-in-law.

Are there too many advisors? Madrid's population is 3.2 million. City Hall has 29,153 workers, of whom 84 percent are public servants. The budget is 4.3 billion euros. There are 57 councilors and 96 high-ranking officials, plus 229 temporary advisors (although there are plans to reduce this figure to 214). According to official August 2012 figures, when there were 231 advisors, they were making a dent of 10.3 million euros in public coffers.

That's practically the same amount that the city will spend this year on policies to encourage business creation, and almost twice as much as it has earmarked for municipal museums or job-seeking programs for the 254,700 unemployed individuals living in the capital.

What exactly do these advisors do, and where do they work? Last August, the Communications and Protocol department, where ideology plays a strong role, had 30 advisors. The Environment, Mobility and Security department had 11.

Only UPyD supports eliminating these arbitrarily appointed advisors altogether

According to official data, most of these advisors have university degrees, some work experience and often also a good track record in the districts where they are posted. Mayor Botella, who is the wife of former Prime Minister José María Aznar, had four advisors working for her when she was the city's environment and mobility commissioner: a doctor in philosophy who wrote her speeches, a political scientist who was her chief of staff, an environmental science graduate and a journalist in charge of communications.

Madrid has 21 districts headed by as many councilors. The councilors have 41 advisors at their service. In August there were 42 of them, at a cost of 1.9 million euros to city coffers. Practically each district has two advisors, whose annual salaries range between 37,000 euros and 50,500 euros. But before the regional elections of May 2011 and the ensuing cuts to this expense, there were 65 advisors for Madrid's 21 districts.

Political groups in the local government also have as many as 81 advisors working for them. Last August there were 80, costing the city three million euros a year. The PP, which has 31 seats in the Madrid council, has 28 temporary advisors; the Socialist Party, with 15 seats, has 33 advisors; the United Left coalition grouping, with six seats, has 16 advisors; while the centrist new kid in town, Unión Progreso y Democracia (UPyD), with five seats, has four advisors.

Why does the PP need 28 temporary advisors in a municipal group that meets once a month, almost never puts forward any proposals, and whose spokesperson is already part of the local government? "They mostly do party work," is the group's reply.

In the local executive's opinion, it would be preferable not to have advisors to the municipal groups; instead, the model should be changed to direct subsidies for political parties, which would then hire their own personnel. But this would be detrimental to the opposition, which lacks the enormous team offered by the municipal structure.

Only UPyD supports eliminating these arbitrarily appointed advisors altogether. Party leader David Ortega has four anyway: two press chiefs, a video and network manager and a worker on clerical duties.

"We would be better off with the nine advisors we are entitled to, but times are hard, and even if they do not cost us very much, it is a symbolic gesture for Madrileños, who are having a tough time and are saving themselves the money this way," says Ortega.

Do the advisors deserve their jobs? Arantxa is a journalist who works in the downtown Tetuán district of the city. Until 2010, she worked for the news agency Colpisa, where she covered the parliament beat for a decade. "I didn't know anybody in the PP when I went into the district," she explains. Now she writes press releases, works with the local media, attends events and represents the councilor when the latter cannot go in person. She is not a party member.

Israel is a law graduate who is also studying history. He did clerical work before being hired as an advisor for the PP group in the local council. Now, among other things, he represents the party at the commissions held in four districts, as well as writing up reports. He is 34, and has been doing this for the last seven years. He was appointed by Manuel Cobo, top aide to former Madrid Mayor Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón, who is now Spain's justice minister. "He knew me from the party," explains Israel, who was secretary general for Nuevas Generaciones in Villa de Vallecas.

Juan Francisco is a technical advisor in Chamartín district, where he began in 2005 at age 26. He was president of Nuevas Generaciones, the PP youth group where Carromero rose to prominence, for the district, and belonged to its regional and national leadership as well. He dropped his mathematics studies for politics. "I am a family man and I'm just doing this for a few years. I am learning a lot, but I want the kind of stability that politics cannot give you," says this father of four who hopes to be a teacher one day.

Paula is also a technical advisor in the upscale district of Chamberí. "This is vocational work. We have no free time, not even weekends, but it's a great learning opportunity," she explains. Paula used to work for a law firm in Dublin and she also worked for Opel in Austria. She speaks four languages. "It might be that one day I will want to be on a party list [in elections], but I don't mean to make a living out of this forever; I know that my professional life will keep swinging this way and that," she concludes.

Paula's full name is Paula Gómez de la Bárcena Ansorena, and she is the daughter of María Asunción Ansorena, a now deceased diplomat and ex-director of the Casa de América cultural center. Paula says this did not help her when she decided to go into politics - perhaps it was a hindrance. But there are cases where the advisor's surname does offer clues about the reasons for their appointment, beyond personal merit.

Gabriela González, an advisor in the central Retiro district, is the daughter of Beatriz Rodríguez-Salmones, the deputy spokeswoman for the PP in Congress. María Prado Bodas, an advisor in Moncloa district, is married to Jesús Moreno, the councilor for Usera district.

Working for the PP group in the local council are the son of the former speaker of the Madrid assembly, the ex-wife of the state secretary for public administration, the son of a PP councilor in Málaga who was murdered by ETA, the daughter of the deputy speaker of the Senate, and the daughter of a deputy in Congress.