José López, the Public Works secretary throughout three Kirchner presidencies, has been released from jail after more than five years behind bars.
The 61-year-old has been detained ever since the small hours of June 16, 2016, when the public official was famously discovered throwing bags containing almost US$9 million over a wall into a convent in the district of General Rodríguez, some 50 kilometres west of the capital.
The decision was taken by the TOF (Tribunal Oral Federal) 1 court, which last April had already granted release to López, who however was unable to leave prison since he lacked the funds to cover the bail.
“Having completed the hearing scheduled for today and after verifying the identity of those standing bail for José Francisco López, who have committed themselves to complying with the corresponding obligations, and having corroborated the registered ownership and value of the goods offered in guarantee, it now corresponds to order his immediate release,” ruled TOF1 judges José Michilini and Ricardo Basílico.
The bail for López had been set a while ago but he remained in prison because he always affirmed: “I don’t have that kind of money.”
López, whose name has become a synonym for Kirchnerite corruption among many in the opposition, had been investigated in multiple cases but so far has only been convicted to a seven-year prison sentence for embezzlement and also illegal possession of a firearm on the basis of that convent detention.
The sum originally set for his bail by the court in April was 85 million pesos, but López appealed via his court-appointed defence lawyer Pamela Bisserier, arguing that he had no money to pay it.
The Cassation Court then ordered TOF1 to lower the bail, which was understood to be beyond the assets of the ex-official, with the result that the sum was successively lowered first to 48 million and finally to 14.5 million pesos. López finally managed to meet the latter sum with the help of three friends pledging both their own homes and cars.
The court ordered his release while pointing out that his custody is now "the exclusive responsibility of the Justice Ministry’s witness protection programme," since López has been a whistleblower in the so-called ‘Cuadernos’ (notebooks) corruption case for some years now. He turned state’s witness while facing allegations he received business bribes during the Kirchner years and has been held at a secret location since.
The ex-secretary testified, supplied information and became a “collaborating defendant,” joining a witness protection programme for the indicted.
Once the court had checked the bail coverage, López could walk free on the grounds of having completed two-thirds of his sentence, which still stands, however.
López is further being tried for presumed fraud in allocating public works, a case in which Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and businessman Lázaro Báez are also defendants, among many others.
In the ‘Sueños Compartidos’ (“Shared Dreams”) case, López is suspected of irregularities in granting funds to the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo Foundation for the construction of social housing.
Opposition decries release
Opposition leaders deplored the release of López on a bail of only 14.5 million pesos, charging that if the ruling Frente de Todos coalition wins the November 14 midterm elections, they will go for the "consecration of corruption."
"We are both surprised and angry. We did not think that there would be impunity but there’s always some legal loophole for them to get out beforehand," María Eugenia Vidal, the leading Juntos por el Cambio Congress candidate for the City of Buenos Aires, told a radio station.
Meanwhile Radical party chairman Alfredo Cornejo affirmed via Twitter: "The kind of justice Kirchnerism wants is that which frees José López for five months of @CFKArgentina’s pensions. That’s why they want to win 14N, to consecrate corruption."
"José López was convicted for stealing nine million in DOLLARS and now the courts ask for just 14.5 million PESOS for his conditional release. How cheap is liberty for the corrupt? The worst thing which can happen to us as Argentines is to grow accustomed to impunity," expressed the lower house minority leader Mario Negri (Radical-Córdoba).