President Alberto Fernández appeared in court on Tuesday, testifying as a witness in the case probing alleged corruption involving his deputy in office, Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, dating back to her time as head of state.
Fernández arrived at Federal Oral Court No. 2 in Buenos Aires shortly after 9.30am to begin giving evidence in the trial, which is probing alleged irregularities in the concession of public works projects during Fernández de Kirchner’s eight-year spell as president from 2007 to 2015.
Fernández, who served as Cabinet chief during the Néstor Kirchner presidency and the first eight months of Fernández de Kirchner’s first term in office, was called as a witness by the defence. The Peronist leader rejected the possibility of submitting a written brief, opting to respond to questioning in-person before the court – a move seen by analysts as a sign of support for his deputy.
During questioning, the Frente de Todos leader came to the defence of his second-in-command, denying allegations that he had been a witness of corruption or told to favour specific bids in the awarding of public works contracts.
"There was definitely no arbitrary distribution, which is really very difficult to do because all the provinces fight for their share," he declared.
In the trial, Fernández de Kirchner is accused of favouring businessman Lázaro Báez in the awarding of 51 highway contracts in the Patagonian province of Santa Cruz, the historic bastion of the Kirchner marriage. Prosecutors say Báez overcharged for the projects, several of which remain unfinished.
Co-defendants include former Federal Planning minister Julio De Vido and former Public Works secretary José López, both of whom retained their posts throughout the Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner presidencies.
Addressing the court, President Fernández said he did not know Báez personally, nor had he witnessed any funds for public works projects being allocated “in a disproportionate manner.”
“No, definitely not,” he declared.
Regarding Báez, the president said he had “met him once in Calafate,” greeted him and had never seen him again.
Fernández de Kirchner, 68, is the target of about a dozen investigations for crimes including bribe-taking, money laundering and obstruction of justice. Some cases have been thrown out, but at least five are at the trial phase.
Another case that investigated Báez for allegedly paying bribes to the Kirchner family through false reservations in hotels belonging to the presidential family was dismissed by the courts for lack of sufficient evidence earlier this year.
In that case, the vice-president and her two children, Florencia and Máximo, were acquitted of the crime of money-laundering.
The vice-president denies wrongdoing in all the cases against her and claims she is a victim of “political persecution” and abuse from a politicised judicial system that her and Fernández's Frente de Todos coalition have vowed to reform.
The 'Fernández-Fernández' partnership that led Frente de Todos to victory in the 2019 elections was severely tested when the ruling coalition suffering a battering in primaries ahead of last year’s midterm legislative elections.
The vice-president subsequently forced her boss into a Cabinet reshuffle in the hope of appeasing an electorate increasingly frustrated with escalating economic woes.
But in a vote in November, their coalition lost control of the Senate – the upper house of Congress. The lower house was already in opposition control.
The pair have a bit more than a year left in office until Argentina’s next presidential election in 2023.
Fernández told the court Tuesday there had been no "arbitrary" spending under Kirchner's presidency.
"Those decisions that were made in budgetary matters and in public works, were never arbitrary," he testified.
He also argued it was impossible for a president to know the nitty gritty of each spending decision.
"The approval of a budget is not the decision of a president who decides how the money is spent. There are many, many jurisdictions involved. There is no room for someone to commit an arbitrary act and for all the deputies and senators to tolerate it because then they have to go and account for it to their province," he added.
Fernández left the court after three hours, without talking to waiting journalists.