Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
If any city ought to be tackling the problem, it’s this one.
The city of Madrid is setting up a separate office to investigate a key source of corruption—the city itself. Starting this summer, Madrid’s new Office Against Fraud and Corruption will have the power to investigate and monitor anyone who provides services for the municipality, be they public or private. The move is both predictable and timely. Mayor Manuela Carmena, elected as head of a left-leaning coalition last May, is a life-long anti-corruption campaigner, so a City Hall cleanup was always likely to be in the cards with her at the helm.
And frankly, it’s about time. Madrid has been mired in a series of corruption-related scandals recently that have shaded into the ridiculous. In recent years, they have featured among their key figures a fine-dodging maverick countess and a state commissioner who tried to suggest that a million dollars found in his loft might have been left there by workers from IKEA.
The new office should prove busy, but also has to tread carefully to avoid accusations of political bias. Between 1989 and 2015, the right wing People’s Party had an unbroken run in Madrid City Hall. It’s thus almost inevitable that any corruption uncovered will have greater connections to the political right, since they were the ones who had greater control of the public purse strings for 26 years. To tread around this issue, the corruption office’s director will have to be approved by three-fifths of the city assembly, a way of making sure that he or she has some cross-party support and isn’t seen as some socialist Torquemada. Once set up, the office will conduct a nine-month all-round audit of Madrid’s public contracts, with the power to visit offices unannounced, and to name names.
The move should prove popular with voters. The desire to clean up public business was in fact a major factor ushering Mayor Carmena into power after an extremely close election. An ex-judge who was standing as a political candidate for the first time (for new left grouping Ahora Madrid), Carmena has a history of campaigning for greater transparency and public ethics. In the 1980s, she succeeded almost single-handedly in changing laws concerning court payments, significantly reducing the potential scope for legal corruption. Shortly before becoming mayor, Carmena worked as an advisor to the government of the Basque Country, advising them on how to identify and recompense victims of past police brutality. In a city that is no stranger to corruption scandals, Carmena’s record seems to have proved especially attractive.
Plus, these scandals are very much ongoing. Madrid is in fact in the grip of a corruption scandal right now. Last month, Carmena’s main opponent in last year’s election, Esperanza Aguirre, stood down as leader of the People’s Party’s local branch during an investigation into possible kickbacks to PP members for awarding public contracts. Aguirre, a countess with a flamboyant personal style, insists she received not a single illegal cent while she ran the Madrid branch of the People’s Party. She has indeed not as yet been accused of any crime, but the damage that the ongoing investigation did to the party’s reputation arguably left her image too tainted to continue.
Aguirre’s image is spotless compared to her PP colleague Francisco Granados, a former Commissioner for Transport and Infrastructure, then later a top official at the Justice and Interior Ministry for Madrid State (as opposed to the smaller City of Madrid). Already revealed as having close links to major players in one of Spain’s largest (and ongoing) corruption scandals, Granados was found guilty of money laundering, forgery, bribery and tax fraud in 2014 and sentenced to jail. In one memorable moment of the investigation, Granados told investigators who asked him who had hidden €900,000 ($1,000,600) in the ceiling of his bedroom that many people had access to the room, including “plumbers” and “IKEA.”
These scandals aren’t unique to Madrid, or by any means confined to Spain’s political right. The country has in fact become a sort of scandal archipelago, with islands of corruption appearing scattered across the country. The so-called “Operation Pokemon” in the northwestern region of Galicia—so named because the sheer volume of suspects in the case brought to mind the Pokemon game’s challenge to “catch them all”—involved both Socialist and People’s Party politicians. Even the king’s sister, Infanta Cristina, appeared in court this year accused of fraud and money-laundering (the trial continues). In light of this depressingly degraded public sphere, a citywide anti-corruption campaign like Madrid’s would be of value coming from any part of the political spectrum. While many public officials in Spain are no doubt blameless and hard-working, it’s hard to get better representatives when the public coffers are seen as a trough for personal enrichment.