Speaker of the house in Spain’s Congress defends her innocence after opposition accusations of corruption in ongoing Covid mask scandal

THE Socialist speaker of Spain’s Congress of Deputies, Francina Armengol, held a press conference on Tuesday in a bid to defend her actions while she was premier of the Balearic Islands, after the main opposition Partido Popular (PP) accused her of involvement in a Covid mask scandal that has engulfed the government in recent weeks. 

The speaker in the lower house of parliament put up a spirited defence of her innocence, pointing out that she is not being investigated over the purchase in the worst months of the pandemic of masks from Soluciones de Gestión, the company that is at the centre of the controversy. 

Armengol denied that she had received ‘orders’ or ‘pressure’ from anyone in the Socialist-led administration to use the company.

She told reporters that the Balearic government was sent a number of different names of firms that were selling the protective personal equipment (PPE), and that these references were passed on to the islands’ health service to choose between them. 

Despite repeated questioning from reporters, however, she refused to say who recommended that Soluciones de Gestión be used as a supplier for the Balearic government. 

She also went on to say that she got into politics to fight against corruption, which is something that she finds ‘repulsive’ and ‘deeply’ detests, according to news agency Europa Press. 

“Politics is not about dragging everything into the mud,” she continued. “I am calling on the PP for responsibility, and for it to rise to the occasion.”

Speaker in Congress Francina Armengol
Francina Armengol, in a file photo. © Alberto Gardin/ZUMA Press Wire

On Monday, the PP described Armengol as an ‘alleged necessary collaborator’ in the ‘fraud’ supposedly carried out by a network of political aides and business figures during the worst months of the Covid 19 pandemic in 2020, and which has become known as the ‘Koldo case’. 

The party accused the now-speaker of having accepted and paid for a shipment of face masks from the allegedly corrupt network, despite being aware that they were not of sufficient quality for use by medical staff as promised.

She is alleged to have only reclaimed the multi-million sum paid for the personal protective equipment three years later, just as the Partido Popular was taking over the regional government on the Balearic Islands after winning the regional elections there. 

PP spokesperson in Congress, Miguel Tellado, filed an official document in Congress on Monday calling for Armengol to quit, ‘to do a favour to the institution [Congress] and to herself’, he said. 

According to Armengol’s account on Tuesday, the batch of masks that arrived from Soluciones de Gestión were not the high-grade FFP2 masks that healthcare staff needed, but were instead surgical masks, which offer a lower level of protection. 

She also sought to correct reports in the press that the masks were useless.

“They were not unusable nor were they fake, as people have been saying,” she told reporters. 

jose luis abalos
Former Transport Minister Jose Luis Abalos.

The speaker also sought to clarify why her government waited three years before starting a legal process to reclaim €2.6 million from the company over the discrepancy in what it had promised and what it had delivered.

“The public administration is infinitely slower than we would like,” was her excuse, pointing to the extra delays due to civil servants working from home due to the pandemic.  

Guardia Civil arrests

The so-called ‘Koldo case’ came to light on February 20, when 20 people were arrested by Spain’s Guardia Civil for their alleged involvement in the scandal. 

The company at the centre of the case, Soluciones de Gestión (management solutions), had little to no activity before the pandemic. 

During the health emergency, however, it won a government contract to supply eight million masks at a cost of €20 million.

One of the key suspects in the case is Koldo Garcia, who was once the right-hand man of the former Socialist transport minister, Jose Luis Abalos.

Garcia is accused by prosecutors of having pocketed commissions of €1.5 million for acting as an intermediary in the deal. He is thought to have invested the funds in the purchase of three apartments and several plots of land. 

Abalos has also been implicated in the scandal, although he has not so far been arrested or charged with any wrongdoing. 

He has defended his innocence since the story broke, and has held onto his job as a deputy in Congress despite being expelled from the Socialist Party, which called on him to quit last week. 

Instead of leaving his role as a lawmaker, he has instead joined the grupo mixto, the mixed group of deputies from small parties in Congress, where he is now an independent. 

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