Colombia’s judicial branch and the country’s prosecutor general have demanded the resignation of president of Colombia’s Constitutional Court after allegations that he sought bribes from a large oil company.
The now-suspended magistrate, Jorge Pretelt, came under unprecedented fire when magistrate Mauricio Gonzalez accused the court president of asking oil company Fidupetrol for $200 thousand in return for promising that the court would revoke a $9 million fine imposed on the company by a lower court.
In an effort to restore confidence in the Constitutional Court after the biggest corruption scandal in its 24-year history, the Interinstitutional Commission of the Judicial Branch had requested Pretelt’s resignation.
“When the actions of a magistrate are seriously questioned, to the point that they cast doubt on the transparency and honesty of the court, the Judicial Branch as a whole is negatively impacted, among other reasons, because it affects its legitimacy and calls into question the capacity of the justice system to impartially resolve the conflicts and interests of the citizens,” the Commission stated in a letter.
The letter was signed by the Fiscal General Eduardo Montealegre; president of the Supreme Court of Justice Leonidas Bustos, president of the State Board Luis Rafael Vergara, and president of the Judiciary Wilson Ruiz.
Pretelt has so far agreed to temporarily step down, but has refused to resign in spite of being at the center of the court’s biggest corruption scandal since its inception in 1991.
Other magistrates of the Constitutional Court have unanimously urged the court president to resign permanently, and announced he had agreed to this.
However, Pretelt subsequently announced to be challenging the decision and defend himself against the corruption allegations.
The suspended court president came under unprecedented fire when magistrate Mauricio Gonzalez accused Pretelt of asking Fidupetrol for $200 thousand in return of him making sure the company would not have to pay a $9 million fine.
Gonzalez was the presiding magistrate in the October 2014 case and had reportedly been warned about the attempted extortion by fellow magistrate and the court’s former president, Luis Ernesto Vargas.
Fidupetrol attorney Victor Pacheco allegedly told Vargas that he had been invited to the home of Pretelt ahead of the ruling. In this private meeting, the court magistrate allegedly had said that if Fidupetrol paid him, he would persuade Gonzalez to overrule a $9 million fine imposed on the company by a lower court.
The lawyer then reported the alleged extortion attempt to Pretelt’s colleague who subsequently filed a complaint, dropping the figurative bomb on the court in charge of protecting — of all things — the Colombian constitution.
Following the publication of the accusations in El Tiempo newspaper, President Juan Manuel Santos ordered Congress to follow up on Gonzalez’ complaint and immediately open the investigation into Pretelt.
Congress itself had elected Pretelt as magistrate for eight years in 2009 from a shortlist proposed by former President Alvaro Uribe, currently an opposition senator.
Top officials from the executive and judicial branches in Colombia can only be held accountable by Congress’ Accusations Committee as an independent branch of power.
However, the committee itself is facing elimination because of chronic inactivity, corruption by members and consequent impunity for prominent crimes.
Santos asked the committee to “decisively and immediately proceed with the corresponding investigation so in a short term it can clarify what happened and whether the integrity of the constitutional court is tact.”