The Gürtel case is an ongoing political corruption scandal in Spain, which implicates officers of the People's Party (PP), Spain's major right-wing party, some of whom have been forced to resign or have been suspended. Gürtel is one of the largest corruption scandals in recent Spanish history, and there are related scandals, such as the Barcenas case, which have received media attention in their own right. The case came to public attention in early 2009, but for the most part the suspects were not put on trial until October 2016.
The investigative operation was given the name Gürtel in a cryptic reference to one of the principal suspects, Francisco Correa (Correa means belt in Spanish, Gürtel in German). Correa is a businessman who cultivated links with PP officers. The Spanish police began to investigate his activities in 2007 after information was obtained from a whistle-blower, Ana Garrido Ramos, regarding alleged corruption in the Madrid area.
The accusations include bribery, money laundering and tax evasion. They implicate a circle of businessmen led by Correa and politicians from the People's Party, although some of the evidence refers to participants by initials and nicknames such as "Luis el Cabron". The alleged illicit activities relate to party funding and the awarding of contracts by local/regional governments in Valencia, the Community of Madrid and elsewhere.
Early estimates of the money loss to public finances amounted to at least €120,000,000., while some of the alleged bribes paid in return were not particularly large (for example, items of luxury clothing).
A judicial investigation was started by Baltasar Garzón, the examining magistrate of the Juzgado Central de Instrucción No. 5, the court which investigates the most important criminal cases in Spain, including terrorism, organised crime, and money laundering. Garzón had five suspects, including Correa, detained in February 2009.
Garzón was suspended as a judge in 2010 pending his own trial on a charge of exceeding his authority with regard to a case unrelated to Gürtel (his investigation into Francoist crimes against humanity). This particular suspension was eventually overturned, but it was still in force when, in 2011, Garzón was given another suspension, this time pending trial for having violated lawyer-client privilege in the Gürtel case. (He had recorded conversations between detained suspects and their lawyers).
The case was reassigned to Judge Antonio Pedreira. In the summer of 2011 Pedreira set bail for Correa at €15,000,000, reportedly the second largest figure in Spanish legal history. Correa's legal team appealed, saying that the amount was not based on an objective assessment of their client's wealth, as Correa´s access to some accounts had been blocked and there was uncertainty about how much wealth he held abroad. Correa was released on bail in June 2012 by which time Pedreira, who was suffering from Parkinson's disease, had been replaced by the third judge to handle the case Pablo Ruz. Ruz reduced the sum required to 200,000 euros, a reduction reflecting not only the accused's perceived ability to pay, but also the length of time he had been held on remand, which was approaching the maximum possible under Spanish law.
The investigation took a long time for various reasons including the number of suspects and delays in receiving information from foreign banks. In 2014 Judge Ruz announced he was in a position to proceed against 45 suspects, after dividing the case into different "epochs", the first one relating to crimes allegedly committed in the period 1999-2005. However, Ruz had been taken off the case by the time the first part came to trial in 2016.
A case involving the Valencian branch of the alleged network went to court relatively quickly. It was known in the press as the "suitgate" affair, as it involved allegations regarding suits supposedly given to prominent Valencian politician Francisco Camps. After a partial dismissal in 2009, the Supreme Court of Spain ordered it to be reopened. In 2011, Camps resigned as Valencian premier and leader of the Valencian Partido Popular in order to avoid standing trial while in office. Camps was found not guilty in 2012, and the verdict was upheld on appeal. However, the case was seen as having damaged Camps' career.
Prior to 2013, reactions to Gürtel often divided on party political lines, with the more conservative media downplaying the significance of the allegations. Spain's highest-circulation daily newspaper, centre-left El País, which traditionally supports the PSOE, won a major press award (an Ortega y Gasset Award) in 2010 for investigative journalism relating to Gürtel. Público, a newspaper with a more left-wing stance than El País, also gave much coverage to the case.
In 2013 the picture became more complicated, as the Barcenas case started dividing the electorate of the Popular Party. While the conservative ABC kept toeing the party line, the centre-right El Mundo carried some of the major revelations about the case.
It has been argued that the underlying problem is not a party political one, but rather a system which does not require transparency in the award of contracts. Spain occupied the 40th place in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index of 2013 (having dropped from 30th place). In 2016 Spain´s first anti-corruption commission began work.
January 2013 saw major revelations regarding the activities of Luis Bárcenas, the former treasurer of the Partido Popular. The Spanish justice system released information from the Swiss authorities regarding his financial dealings in Switzerland, and the press reported on alleged slush funds run for the benefit of the Partido Popular. The allegations of illegal party funding came initially from El Mundo, Spain's leading center-right newspaper which is normally close to the Partido Popular. It alleged that secret donations had been used for under-the-table payments ("backhanders") to party officials. Citing sources within the Partido Popular, the newspaper appeared to clear its current leadership, saying that the reported payments were made between 1989 and 2009.
On January 31, El País published facsimiles of handwritten accounts, allegedly from Barcenas' hand and detailing slush funds, which report a total of 250,000 euros illegally paid to current prime minister Mariano Rajoy. The alleged funds came mostly from private building construction companies, like FCC and OHL; this, if the allegations are confirmed, would raise additional questions on Spain's building boom. While the PP filed a defamation lawsuit against El País (which it subsequently dropped), it took no action against El Mundo. Attorney General Eduardo Torres-Dulce ordered the anti-corruption prosecutor to investigate any possible links between the alleged payments handed out to Popular Party (PP) officials and case filings in the Gürtel case. In 2014 El País commented that it is hard to draw a clear line between the two cases, Gürtel and Barcenas. However, the cases are being processed separately by the Spanish courts.