This article first appeared in La Tercera on January 29, 2021.
A few days ago, after the raid on the municipality of Recoleta, the corruption case involving the company Itelecom and several municipalities in the country resurfaced. Although this case has been investigated since 2018, only in 2020 we publicly knew its implications, when the owner of the company, Marcelo Lefort, was arrested, as well as councilors, municipal administrators and even a judge, all linked to the municipalities of Iquique and Chillán. Since then, background information continues to emerge, which even led to the now former mayor of Negrete behind bars. Added to this are the declarations of former directors of Itelecom who told how the payment of bribes to municipalities worked, revealing new names and involving other municipalities.
As in many corruption cases, two interested parties are needed for it to occur. On the one hand, Itelecom required public bids tailored to its needs and, on the other hand, people were needed to be available to do that favor. A perfect match where bribery and bribery can be seen in all its splendor.
But some doubts arise: Did Itelecom fall into temptation when it entered the lighting business or was corruption its business strategy from the beginning? If so, it is most likely that its mode of operation has been repeated in other businesses, as it happened in the Odebrecht case, in which little by little, new aspects have emerged and at a global level. Without going any further, we recently learned that Itelecom paid more than $ 1,600 million in bribes. Another question is what happened first, did the company offer bribes or did the public officials request them? If it is the latter, we can think that they could also have received incentives from other companies, which would mean that today we only know the tip of the iceberg of a system that facilitates corruption. In fact, Lefort himself, when questioned about the reason for his actions, said “…I let myself be led by a corrupt system”, (although this is the ex post justification of all companies that commit corruption worldwide).
So, we are facing a system in which committing crimes is at the discretion of each one and depends on the morality, ethics, probity and level of ambition of the other, and not on a system of control and prevention.
Certain actions may not even represent crimes, but may be ethically questionable. This is the case of the donation requested by Mayor Jadue to Itelecom, which -although it would have been done within the legal framework-, is inappropriate and represents a conflict of interest, since the mere fact of requesting money to a supplier company puts it in a dilemma, where accepting can mean later favors and rejecting can mean the termination of a contract.
Although municipal corruption has been frequent for years, and we still do not see major advances in this matter, I highlight the role played by the Comptroller’s Office, although it is insufficient. The same happens with the internal control that should be exercised by the Municipal Council, where the supervisors should also be supervised. If not, let’s ask the councilmen of Iquique involved in this case.
If we want to stop municipal corruption we need additional and exclusive efforts, both internal and external, especially because municipalities are autonomous bodies that have different areas, in which large amounts of money are handled and that deal with different suppliers. Likewise, progress must be made in the total transparency of information, be it on contracting, tenders and audits, particularly because it will allow us to identify the final beneficiaries of each operation.
Good news, which should be followed by all municipalities, is the platform launched by the Municipality of Santiago for municipal officials to report suspicious activities internally, although a better practice would be for the reporting channel to be open to all stakeholders. These actions should be the “from”, considering that the municipalities are the main interested in knowing if any of their officials are involved in acts of corruption, in order to stop it as soon as possible.
The plot around Itelecom continues to grow like a snowball and could mark a turning point, which finally opens the eyes of those responsible for probity and the common good. When the State is defrauded, society is defrauded, affecting public trust and faith, and it is only possible to get out of this spiral with concrete facts.
By: Susana Sierra