Colombia’s constitutional court is going through one of its worst corruption crises in recent history after a magistrate accused the court’s newly elected president of having sought a $200,000 bribe with an oil company.
According to magistrate Mauricio Gonzalez, Court president Jorge Ignacio Pretelt allegedly asked the attorney of oil company Fidupetrol for the money 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 $200,000, he would persuade Gonzalez to overrule a $9 million fine.
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.
Vargas then reportedly informed Gonzalez of the incident, adding that according to the lawyer the magistrate had claimed that the presiding magistrate in the Fidupetrol case was in his pocket.
Gonzalez reportedly called Pacheco to verify the accusation. The attorney confirmed the accusation and agreed to testify under oath over the alleged extortion attempt.
Pachaco told newspaper El Espectador he would tell Congress everything he knew, but wouldn’t talk to media about the accusation.
Following the publication of the accusations in the 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.”
Magistrate denies charges
According to El Espectador, Pretelt has denied the accusations to both Congress and the newspaper.
In a letter of defense, he asked the Accusations Committee to investigate the accusations, stressing that he had voted against the oil company’s appeal to revoke the fine.
Pretelt told El Espectador that he had nothing to do with the Fidupetrol vote and had never tried to persuade Gonzalez.
The constitutional court president said that he did know Fidupetrol’s attorney, and that Pachecho had been to his home twice, but not after Pretelt had found his court was to rule on the attorney’s client and the possible conflict of interest.