The country now has two former presidents under a cloud of corruption awaiting a final decision by the Sala III high criminal court.
The latest is Miguel Ángel Rodríguez Echeverría, who was convicted Wednesday of aggravated corruption as the instigator of a plot to obtain a $2.4 million bribe from the Alcatel cell phone company.
Rodríguez said after the verdict was read that he will appeal. He will join former president Rafael Ángel Calderón Fournier, convicted of two counts of peculado, who also awaits an appeals court review of his October 2009 conviction.
Rodríguez, 71, got five years in prison. But he was allowed to go home to await the outcome of the appeal on the condition he does not leave the country. He characterized the guilty verdict as just another step in the process.
Not so lucky were three fellow defendants. Guido Sibaja Fonseca got 15 years for corruption and fraud. He is a former adviser to the board of directors of the Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad. Edgar Valverde Acosta, the former Costa Rican president of Alcatel, got 15 years for four counts of aggravated corruption. And Luis Adrián Quirós, a notary, got 15 years for three counts of aggravated corruption. All three left the courtroom and went to prison to await the outcome of the appeal.
Eliseo Vargas García, the former head of the Caja Costarricense de Segruo Social, got two years for his role in the plot. He also was the only one of the defendants to have been convicted in the Calderón trial for his part in engineering a kickback from a medical equipment supplier.
The bulk of the verdict came from Rosaura García Aguilar. She and fellow judge Ileana Méndez Sandí generally agreed on the decisions involving each of the nine defendants. The third judge, Jorge Camacho Morales, would have declared the defendants innocent. Majority rules in Costa Rican criminal cases.
As the verdict was being read, José Antonio Lobo, the chief witness for the state, was boarding a plane at Juan Santamaría airport to go to the United States. His testimony was damming because he had an inside role in the plot but choose to turn state’s evidence. He said he gave money to Rodríguez. Lobo was not charged.
Rodríguez was acquitted of an allegation of illegal enrichment because judges said they could not see where he actually got any money. He was president from 1998 to 2002 and later was named secretary general of the Organization of American States. He had to leave that job after serving briefly when the bribery allegations became public. The actions that led to the trial took place in 2001.
All the defendants were at the hearing in Goicoechea Wednesday. More than 100 persons crowded into the tribunals biggest courtroom, and the atmosphere was oppressive because the cooling system was turned off to reduce noise. The verdict was delayed 15 minutes because there were problems with the audio system.
In a press conference after the verdict, Jorge Chavarría, the fiscal general, declared that the case shows that despite all its flaws justice in Costa Rica works. He was not directly involved in the case, which began in 2004 and resulted in a year-long trial.
The case was complex because it appeared that the bulk of the money involved passed through foreign bank accounts.
Both major local television stations covered the reading of the verdict. A detailed, written outline of the case and the verdict will be available next month.
President Laura Chinchilla issued a statement that said “Costa Rica is a state of rights and its political Constitution established the division and independence of powers; in that sense I reaffirm my conviction in the competence and jurisdictions that correspond to each one.”
Vargas got five years in prison in the Calderón case that still is on appeal. That trial lasted 10 months.
The case involved a $39.5 million contract between the Caja and a medical supply firm in Finland. This Prosecutors argued successfully that Calderón and others exacted a commission, perhaps as much as $9.5 million. The contract was financed by the government of Finland.
Like many governments, Finland provides special financing for overseas purchasers from their country’s products