Ex-Agriculture Minister innocent of embezzlement: Inspector General’s Office

Andres Felipe Arias (Photo: Cronica del Quindio)

Colombia’s former Minister of Agriculture Andres Felipe Arias is receiving help from an unlikely source in the Supreme Court case being brought against him over his alleged role in a 2009 corruption scandal.

Arias is charged with overseeing an embezzlement ring that directed millions of public dollars allocated for disadvantaged farmers to a group of wealthy families. The Inspector General’s Office, however, the government body charged with investing and disciplining public officials accused of misconduct, is now advocating for Arias’ innocence in front of the court, according to national media reports published on Tuesday.

“Andres Felipe Arias never committed a crime, he never acted with intent, or in bad faith, or with premeditation. Arias did not steal a single cent and, thank goodness, we’re already proving it,” said Jairo Salgado, Inspector General Alejandro Ordoñez‘s representative to the Supreme Court.

Since 2009, Arias has been battling against accusations of corruption, after it was revealed that $25 million of the Agro Ingreso Seguro (AIS) fund, a program conceived under former President Alvaro Uribe’s government, was directed toward some of Colombia’s more affluent families — including the director of national newspaper El Colombiano and former Miss Colombia Valerie Dominguez — instead of the poor farmers who were the intended beneficiaries.

According to local media, the former minister is currently being investigated for crimes related to the incompletion of legal requirements regarding contractual agreements with the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), and the unjust enrichment of third parties. In total, some $140 million was caught up in the 2009 scandal.

While Salgado affirms that Arias’ negligence warrants disciplinary action, the IGO official maintained that Arias is not guilty of any criminal act. It was not the former minister but his political agents who engaged in direct contact with the IICA, said Salgado.

“Throughout this entire process, and in all of the accusatory evidence [presented], we have not found that the acted in fraud or deceit,” claimed the IGO representative. “He worked with negligence, but not with this criminal fraud that implies ‘knowing that what I’m doing is a crime, and I want to carry it out.’ This is the evidence that the IGO did not find.”

Statement by Jairo Salgado, the representative attorney for the Supreme Court

MORE: Ex-minister Arias barred from public office over subsidy scandal

According to Salgado, technical committees were responsible for revising the compromising agreements with the IICA, and the former minister only received those agreements after they been passed through various filters.

For this reason, Salgado rejects the allegations that Arias had control over the inspection of the contracts’ minutiae.

“This is an affirmation which was not been proven and if it had I would be the first person to demand his conviction.” said the attorney.

Salgado’s defense of Arias stands in contrast to the Prosecutor General’s Office (PGO) insistence on his guilt. The conflicting recommendations could be evidence of a deepening schism between Colombia’s two public oversight institutions.

As a criminal matter, the case against Arias falls under the scope of the Prosecutor General’s Office. The IGO, which only has the authority to pass administrative disciplinary measures, can, however, intervene in criminal proceedings to influence the decisions.

The PGO and IGO have locked horns most recently over the IGO’s decision to dismiss, and ban from office for 15 years, Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro over alleged “irregularities” in the city’s conversion of private garbage collection contracts into a public service.

MORE: Petro vs. Colombia — can international bodies save Bogota’s mayor?

Colombian Prosecutor General Luis Eduardo Montealegre has since challenged the power of Prosecutor General Alejandro Ordoñez to dismiss public officials without due process.

Since Tuesday, many have expressed consternation at the idea that Petro, who has gained wide public visibility and support across the country since his dismissal, should be treated so harshly over what are perceived as being relatively petty accusations, when compared to those being leveled against Arias, whom the IGO is now defending.

In 2009, Arias faced a similar punishment to the one assessed to Petro last December. The IGO dismissed the former minister and banned him from serving new office for 16 years, over what the IGO deemed was his negligent role in the embezzlement.

The AIS scandal

The AIS scandal broke in 2009, when the Colombian Cambio magazine denounced the state-run program for distributing funds to wealthy families rather than agricultural workers.

Arias, the Agricultural Minister at the time, was accused of using the program funds to promote his 2010 candidacy for president, and of redirecting millions worth of subsidies to affluent Colombian citizens such as the Davila, Lacouture, Vives, and Pinedo familes, a former Miss Colombia and the director of the El Colombiano newspaper, for which he was a prominent columnist.

Criminal prosecutions against Arias began in October 2011. Current president Juan Manuel Santos and former President Uribe – who has consistently defended the innocence of the man many considered his prodigy — were among those called to testify over the course of the proceedings.

MORE: Uribe claims judicial conspiracy against Arias

The former minister was released on bail after his fourth appeal in June 2013, and remains free from prison as his court case continues.

MORE: Colombian ex-minister accused of embezzling $25M released on bail

The AIS was replaced in 2011 by the Desarrollo Rural con Equidad (DRE), also designed to support small and medium-scale Colombian farmers.

Arias is potentially facing 15 years in jail for the charges being brought against him. His defense is scheduled to present its closing arguments Wednesday afternoon.


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