The National Court in Madrid sentenced 29 of 37 people accused in a scheme benefiting Spain's ruling Popular Party (PP) to a combined 351 years in jail. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy claimed they were "isolated cases."
In a ruling of nearly 1,700 pages, the National Court in Madrid handed down prison sentences on Thursday for politicians and businesspeople implicated in the "Gurtel" corruption case around a slush fund set up in the 1990s and early 2000s to illegally finance Popular Party (PP) campaigns. The charges included falsifying accounts, influence-peddling and tax offences.
The case is part of a wider investigation into accusations that PP officials were paid illegal bonuses administered by then-party treasurer Luis Barcenas. The court ruling comes at a time when the PP is losing popular support to the business-friendly Ciudadanos (Citizens) party which has so far backed the PP but said Thursday it would consider revising its position.
Since coming to power in 2011, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has denied any wrongdoing or knowledge of the PP's accounting practices. Rajoy was the PP deputy secretary general and then the party's secretary general until 2004.
In the first such conviction for a Spanish political party, the PP was fined €245,000 ($287,000) by the three judges for benefiting from the scheme between 1999 and 2005. They did not find current members of the government had committed any wrongdoing.
Businessman Francisco Correa, nicknamed "Gurtel," was handed a 51-year sentence after being judged to be at the center of the illegal deals between small city councils and a range of businesses.
Luis Barcenas, who was the PP treasurer for 30 years and then a PP senator, was sentenced to 33 years in jail and given €44 million in fines.
The wives of Correa and Barcenas — Carmen Rodriguez Quijano and Rosalia Iglesias — were both sentenced to 15 years in jail.
Former Spanish Health Minister Ana Mato was ordered to repay €28,000 she used for personal trips and events for her family.
While denying knowledge of the scheme, Rajoy admitted after Thursday's judgment that corruption plots do "a lot of damage" to his party.
Also on Thursday, a major police operation was carried out in Catalonia and a number of offices were raided. Former regional president Carles Puigdemont wrote on Twitter: "It's no surprise that the [Spanish police unit] UDEF and its media partners organize a show in Catalonia to cover up the systemic Gurtel corruption."
While Rajoy's government remains under pressure over its regional conflict with Catalonia and opposition from the liberal Ciudadanos party which is leading in national opinion polls, it did succeed in passing a long-delayed budget on Wednesday by 177 votes in favor and 168 against. Rajoy needed support from Basque National Party lawmakers in carrying the vote.
"What happened today in parliament is very good for Spain," Rajoy said after the budget was approved. "2018 will also be a positive year for the Spanish economy," with growth of 2.7 percent forecast.
Approval of the budget should allow Rajoy to hold on to power until his term ends in 2020.
However, after the ruling, Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera said: "The situation is grave because Spaniards deserve stability, but also cleanliness."
jm/aw (Reuters, EFE, AP)