Notes on a scandal - Monocolumn | Monocle


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25 November 2014

This weekend was a surprising and positive one for Portuguese justice. For the first time, a former politician has been arrested under suspicion of corruption, tax fraud and money laundering.

Former prime minister José Sócrates was arrested on Friday upon arrival at Lisbon airport from Paris. Three other people have also been arrested, all linked to an alleged scheme that landed Sócrates with nearly €20m in a Swiss bank account.

Looking back at his premiership it’s not like we didn't see this coming. The former PM ruled the Portuguese government from 2005 to 2011, resigning in the midst of his country's mounting debt crisis.

His time in government was marked by scandal after scandal: bribing his way towards a college degree, waiving environmental restrictions to build a gigantic shopping mall on protected land and so on. Even newspaper editors resigned due to pressure from his cabinet.

Sócrates had been living in Paris working as a consultant to pharmaceutical company Octapharma. He is now preparing to spend a fourth night in prison as prosecutors attempt to put together his puzzle of misdeeds.

Trouble began when Sócrates entrusted a childhood friend with dirty money, which the friend was to deposit in an Octapharma offshore account, paying Sócrates his salary.

It was an elaborate plan that may have gone unnoticed had the slow and bureaucratic Portuguese justice system remained, well, slow and bureaucratic. Yet, for the first time in decades, the system actually worked. It was Sócrates's own bank in Portugal that reported him to authorities after a series of unusual transactions.

The biggest setback in Portuguese governance – the mentality – might finally be starting to change. Just last week the ‘golden visa’ scandal was also exposed, leading to the resignation of Portuguese interior minister.

As a Portuguese citizen I can only hope this is the beginning of a deep change of mentalities in Portugal and the return of some dignity in our political and justice systems.

And given Sócrates’ ancient Greek namesake, I'd bet his defence is something along the lines of, “I know one thing: that I know nothing.”

Carlota Rebelo is a researcher for Monocle 24.


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