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Judge rules against ex-PM in EL PAÍS defamation case over illegal payments

Ruling states that PP, in breach of law, paid Aznar on at least three occasions while in office

Former Prime Minister José María Aznar. Ampliar foto
Former Prime Minister José María Aznar. EFE

A judge has dismissed a lawsuit brought by former Popular Party (PP) Prime Minister José María Aznar against EL PAÍS over a story it published in May 2013 that alleged he had continued to receive sums of money from the Popular Party after he took office in 1996, in contravention of the Incompatibilities Law.

On April 25, Judge Enrique Presa Cuesta ruled that Aznar was paid bonuses on at least three occasions by his party while prime minister. The judge pointed out in his sentence that Aznar’s lawyer had argued that the money was given in return for activities he had carried out before taking office in May 1996, but had failed to back this up with any documentary evidence.

The ruling also requires Aznar to pay all legal costs, noting that in preparing the story, EL PAÍS used “official PP accounts,” and that it also “tried to contact the former prime minister and his party to ascertain their version of events.”

Aznar has protested his innocence and says he will appeal against the ruling.

Aznar has protested his innocence and says he will appeal against the ruling

In May 2013, Aznar brought a lawsuit accusing EL PAÍS of defamation and invasion of privacy over the allegations, demanding compensation of €100,000.

The affair is rooted in the so-called Bárcenas case, an investigation into handwritten ledgers allegedly kept by former PP treasurer Luis Bárcenas, in which he recorded irregular donations to the party and amounts paid out to leading PP officials dating back more than 20 years. Bárcenas, who faces charges in the Gürtel kickbacks-for-contracts case, has been found to have held bank accounts containing millions of euros in Switzerland.

EL PAÍS reported in May 2013 that, according to a report sent by the Tax Agency to High Court Judge Pablo Ruz, who is investigating the Bárcenas case, Aznar received 2.7 million pesetas (€16,755) in three payments from the PP after he was sworn in as prime minister on May 5, 1996.

The Incompatibilities Law forbids full-time members of the government from receiving any other form of remuneration for professional services, either in the public or private sector, other than their official salary.

EL PAÍS reported that Aznar received €16,755 in three payments from the PP after he was sworn in as PM

Aznar has “emphatically” denied having received any bonuses from the PP after taking office. He said the sums mentioned by EL PAÍS were amounts due prior to having taken office, which were subject to withholding tax and fully declared to the Tax Agency.

EL PAÍS reported that Aznar received a total of 12.174 million pesetas (€73,167) between January 31 and June 17, 2006. The sums he received were subject to a withholding tax of 46 percent. Aznar is not referred to by name but by the reference code 053. The €73,167 he received the year he took office consisted of 16 different payments of varying amounts. In January through to May 3, 1996, two days before he took office, Aznar received 9.329 million pesetas (€56,500) from the PP. The last two payments were dated June 17 of that year, a month and 12 days after he took office.

Aznar came to office on the basis of a campaign that highlighted corruption within the Felipe González-led Socialist Party administration, which had governed for the previous 14 years.

It has since emerged that the practice of handing out extra payments to PP officials dates back decades. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy declared that his income rose by 27 percent between 2007 and 2011 as a result of the increase in sums given to him by the party. He included these sums as entertainment allowances in his tax declarations.

The law forbids full-time members of government from receiving any remuneration other than their official salary

Bárcenas told the anti-corruption prosecutor’s office in February 2013: “Bonuses? Of course. In the case of a national deputy or a national senator with parliamentary responsibility, as within any company, it is taken that he has a higher level of responsibility and puts more hours in.”

Bárcenas said he consulted with a law firm about making these extra payments to deputies. “They told us there was no problem,” the former party treasurer told the judge. “The payments were reflected in receipts that showed the sums involved were gross sums. The withholding tax that was normally imposed was the same as that in Congress and the Senate, which was 21 percent,” Bárcenas said.

If Aznar had declared the money he received as income, the withholding tax that would have applied would most likely have been different. “It’s difficult to calculate. Depending on personal circumstances, it would be on average around 30 percent, with a maximum rate of 56 percent,” one expert told EL PAÍS.