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“Operation Altarpiece” ensnares Galician Church in corruption case

Police uncover ring that awarded grants for restoration in exchange for hiring certain companies

Altarpiece inside the convent of the Order of St Clare in Tui
Altarpiece inside the convent of the Order of St Clare in Tui

It all began with the bizarre sale of a Church rectory in Paraños, a hamlet in the Galician province of Pontevedra, in northwestern Spain.

The villagers learned that this building, which they all helped preserve with their savings, had been sold behind their backs by the Diocese of Tui in 2008. The official sale price was €60,000 and the buyer was a familiar face at the diocese: Carlos Gómez-Gil Aizpurúa, then a restoration technician with the Galician department of culture who had power over the granting of subsidies to restore Church-owned assets.

The new owner of the rectory, a typical village construction, made extensive renovations to the property, adding a porch and a swimming pool.

The parish priest of Paraños, Juan Sobrino, who was a personal friend of Gómez-Gil and now also a target of a corruption investigation, repeatedly denied local accusations that he had wrongfully disposed of the house. This, despite the fact that the title deed shows he was present at the notary’s office where the sale was officially closed.

The people of Paraños were shocked to see the property up for sale for €680,000

The bishop of Tui, José Diéguez Reboredo (who is also under scrutiny and has since stepped down from the diocese) said the home had been transferred to Gómez-Gil for a period of 23 years in exchange for the restoration work.

But in March 2009, the people of Paraños were shocked to see the property up for sale on a real estate website. Gómez-Gil, who had yet to pay a single penny to the Church, was asking for €680,000.

The villagers filed a complaint with the attorney’s office, and investigators found a link with another case underway in a Santiago courthouse in connection with Galician government subsidies to several Catholic dioceses to restore ecclesiastical heritage, and the contracts signed between the Church and restoration companies. Both cases shared a name: Carlos Gómez-Gil Aizpurúa.

The police eventually found what it believed was a grants-for-contracts corruption ring. Thus, “Operation Altarpiece” was launched.

Investigators argue that Gómez-Gil awarded subsidies to Church officials who promised to hire the restoration companies he suggested. These companies returned the favor in cash or gifts, or sometimes in the form of free restoration work for Gómez-Gil. A second regional official, José Manuel Pichel Pichel, the architect at the public corporation that promotes tourism along the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route, awarded subsidies to restore pilgrim shelters following similar criteria. Both are being investigated for fraud, bribery of public officials, influence peddling and other crimes between 2003 and 2009. A total of 12 people are under investigation.

Dozens of conversations recorded by the police illustrate the way the ring worked. In one of them, the architect told a trusted building engineer about the possibilities of Galicia’s network of pilgrim shelters for the procurement of contracts: “I’m going to share out Galicia among you, I'm going to leave you a fucking amazing legacy,” he said.

Prices were set and quotes broken down below €50,000 to avoid having to go to a public bid

In another conversation between Gómez-Gil and a the owner of a restoration firm who is also under scrutiny, the public official laments the fact that the restoration contract for a specific altarpiece cannot be awarded directly because the work will cost more than €50,000, which by law requires a public bid. Then he asks about the price of restoring six religious images inside the same church, and is told the cost of each will be €11,000. The department official then suggests raising the price to €14,000 and breaking the six images down into three sets of two, to send out three separate quotes and thus circumvent the €50,000 limit.

“Raise it a bit and may God hand out some luck,” he is heard saying.

The wiretaps show scores of similar conversations between Gómez-Gil and restoration firms, in which prices were set and quotes broken down to avoid the public bidding. As a mediator, he took a cut from the grateful companies.

The police analyzed Gómez-Gil’s bank accounts and found deposits worth €122,471 made between 1998 and 2008, the origin of which could not be explained.

Following a visit by the police, one of the entrepreneurs decided to spill the beans. Manuel Montes Carballa, who was tired of doing free work for Gómez-Gil in exchange for promises of contracts that were not always kept, admitted that his own company had renovated the rectory of Paraños.

Several members of the Church were also ensnared in the investigation, including the former bishop of Tui, José Diéguez Reboredo, his diocese economist Benito Estévez and the parish priest of Paraños, Juan Sobrino. The judge in charge of the case and the police believe that the rectory was never really sold to Gómez-Gil, but given away in exchange for past favors in the awarding of subsidies.

The wiretaps also show two other priests, Crisanto Rial and David Juan Morado, warning the targets of the investigation about the police’s activities. Meanwhile, the bishop and economist’s defense attorneys are trying to get the wiretaps dismissed as valid evidence.

“Careful, the police are after you”

J.P.

The more than 3,000 pages representing months’ worth of wiretaps illustrate the degree of connivance between several representatives of the Catholic Church and public officials, whom investigators consider key players in the corruption ring. In September 2009, after officers from the police’s special economic crimes squad UDEF interrogated half-a-dozen priests about the way they received subsidies from the Galician government, several of them rushed to warn Carlos Gómez-Gil. The first one to do so was Don Crisanto, the priest of San Salvador de Lérez, in Pontevedra province. The following is an extract from that conversation:

Crisanto: I just got back from seeing the police.

Carlos Gómez-Gil: I know.

C.: Do you know they are after you?

C.G.G.: I know, I know, yes, life is full of surprises; you’re just trying to work and do things right, and right away there are envious people around you [...]

C.: They asked about you by name and I tried to be sparing with my words and prudent, I did not tell any lies but I did not tell the whole truth either, not in the least, eh? I also didn’t want to make any statements that might complicate things for you. The clearest question, always, insistingly, was whether you or somebody else in the Xunta (Galician government) had indicated a specific company to me, that is the crux of the matter.

C.G.G.: Really, it’s pathetic.

C.: Be careful if there was anything more or less anomalous, take care to fix it, because they are clearly going after you.

C.G.G.: I know, I know. But there was nothing more than work. [...]

C.: My call was to give you early warning so you can prepare your defense if you need to [...]. The gist of it is that you advised, suggested or imposed certain companies, and you received part of the benefits. That is the crux of the matter.

C.G.G.: And how are they going to prove that? Even if it were so, how are they going to prove it? [...] Notice we’ve worked with quite a few companies. So what then, I was extorting money from all of them? It’s pathetic.