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Argentine prosecutors hone in on former president Fernandez in corruption probe

Prosecutors have sought to bring charges against Argentina's former president. The allegations involve a series of luxury hotels that while rarely occupied were thus used to to "launder" public works contracts.

Argentine prosecutors have former president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner in their crosshairs as they pursue money laundering allegations against the former Peronist leader who stepped down as president in December after two terms in office.

Prosecutor Guillermo Marijuan filed a formal request with Judge Sebastian Casanello, who is overseeing an investigation that involves a businessman with close ties to Fernandez. Under Argentine law, such a request is a precursor to charges, which must be decided on by a judge.

Crowds of supporters, some with a Fernandez poster saying, 'Gracias Cristina.'

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News agency Reuters reported that Fernandez "has been charged by a prosecutor with money laundering" citing local media reports, but the agency added that it was not able to immediately confirm the charges with the prosecutor's office.

Fernandez, 63, has long been dogged by allegations of corruption. Earlier this week, businessman Lazaro Baez was arrested on charges that he laundered over $5 million. He has denied any wrongdoing but has also refused to testify and remains in jail.

It's unclear what will happen next. Argentine judges have the power to hold suspects during an investigation, especially if they are deemed a flight risk.

Baez was initially scheduled to testify Thursday, but his appearance was moved up after his unexpected arrest Tuesday night.

Baez received large public works contracts during the administrations of Fernandez and her late husband and predecessor as president, Nestor Kirchner.

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Prosecutors began investigating Baez after a 2013 journalistic investigation said he was Kirchner's figurehead in an elaborate money laundering scheme involving several luxury hotels that are often empty and, thus, unable to generate the large amounts of revenue they reportedly produce.

Local TV recently broadcast images of Baez's sons and others counting wads of cash at a company under investigation.

For many Argentines, the allegations surrounding Baez go to the heart of the kind of endemic corruption that has long plagued the South American country.

It may have a modest reputation abroad, but Argentina ranked 107 out of 167 on Transparency International's annual corruption index last year. The score put it lower than other Latin American countries with well-known reputations for corruption, such as Mexico and Bolivia.

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The money laundering probe appears to have picked up speed since Fernandez left office in December, replaced by a conservative counterpart, President Mauricio Macri.

He campaigned on a platform to root out corruption but has been careful not to politicize the investigation into Fernandez.

Diego Maria Olmedo, a criminal lawyer, said so far Macri's administration has taken a hands-off approach.

"In general, governments tend to keep federal judges at their side," Olmedo said. "This government is apparently letting them work" without interference.

bik/bw (AP, Reuters)

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