Portugal’s attorney general under fire over government resignation pressured to give account or resign

 In Corruption, Justice, News

Portugal’s Attorney General, Lucília Gago, is coming under increasing pressure from the Portuguese parliament and key political figures to give an account of herself over her handling of Operation Influencer which toppled the PS government of António Costa in December last year with accusations and investigations into corruption charges that have seen no basis in fact.

With increasing suspicions that the whole judicial police investigation into alleged corruption at the highest level involving a billion-euro green hydrogen project and data centre at Sines was groundless, with no proof of influence peddling, and as such being nothing more than a political ruse of the right in Portugal tantamount to a political coup to discredit and remove the socialists from power, the attorney general Lucília Gago is now under increasing pressure to give an explanation or resign.

It comes as evidence gathered as part of Operation Influencer, including that used in the investigation of former Prime Minister António Costa, could be declared null by the examining magistrate.

A Lisbon court of appeal decided to keep the defendants subject to a Term of Identity and Residence only because there was not enough evidence of a crime of corruption from the investigation.

It is also stated that the evidence in question should have been gathered by the Judiciary Police (PJ) and not by the Public Security Police (PSP), as these were suspicions of corruption and prevarication crimes that fall into the PJ’s sphere.

The defendants’ lawyers filed a court request on Tuesday this week to request the case to be declared null and void.

The President of Portugal’s parliament, José Pedro Aguiar-Branco has publicly said that Ms.Gago must speak to “avoid creating a climate of suspicion”

“None of us want to believe in premeditated behaviour on the left, or the right, to provoke a certain political fact through a criminal investigation, but the truth is that no-one lives alone in this world, and this needs to be explained”, he told Antena 1’s Geometria Variável programme.

And Portugal’s president, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa said her behaviour over police inquiries into a case involving Brazilian twins getting €4 million worth of treatment on the National Health Service and into the alleged actions of former prime minister António Costa was “machiavellian” and showed a “poker-faced sophistication”

“If it is explained – and if the situation when explained makes it clear that suspicion does not exist, I think we are contributing to these two worlds living together in a healthier way for democracy”, said José Pedro Aguiar-Branco.

When his interviewer asked the parliamentary president if he thought justice was ‘trampling on democracy’, the former minister of Justice (in the short-lived PSD government of Santana Lopes, 2004-2005) said he “could not make a conclusion of that nature”. But – perhaps in the event that other people have – he stressed: “I think that parliament is the space of excellence” for the kind of clarification that “the Portuguese can understand”.

In the case of Operation Influencer, the judges, having considered the evidence twice, concluded that it simply didn’t add up. Moreover, the same was concluded over an alleged corruption case in Madeira, Operation Zarco, which saw a judge setting bail terms against flimsy evidence of wrongdoing.

In that operation, alleged corruption on the island of Madeira involving civil construction contracts resulted in the arrests of three people, and the president of the Regional Government of Madeira being made a legal suspect. The investigation involved alleged active and passive corruption, economic participation of public figures in business deals, prevarication, bribes, abuse of power and influence peddling. It resulted in the resignation of the regional governor of Madeira, Miguel Albuquerque.

About Operation Influencer 

Operation Influencer (Operação Influencer)is an ongoing investigation ordered by Portugal’s public prosecution service regarding possible corruption in deals involving members of the previous Portuguese government.

Portugal’s public prosecutor’s office alleged that Start Campus, the company running the €3.5Bn data centre project Sines 4.0, sought to secure favourable decisions from public officials via influence peddling (hence the investigation’s name), which is a criminal offence in Portugal.

Opposition politicians supporting the prosecutors argued that such practices, involving favour-seeking in which businesses bypass regulations, are not fair or in line with good governance.

The same judge who stated that there was not strong evidence that businessman Diogo Lacerda Machado and Start Campus provided advantages to Nuno Mascarenhas, the mayor of Sines, dismissed the charges of corruption and malfeasance against the others arrested, but said there was evidence of influence peddling by Machado, the prime minister’s chief of staff Vítor Escária, and two Start Campus executives (chief executive Afonso Salema and chief legal officer Rui Oliveira Neves), both of whom resigned.

In a statement released via his legal representative, Machado told the Financial Times: “In all civilised countries and capitalist economies, acting like a lawyer representing clients is not influence peddling.”

According to newspaper Público, the investigation from the public prosecution service that is now known as Operation Influencer was opened after the airing of a report in the RTP investigative journalism show Sexta às 9 in April 2019. The report was about suspicions concerning the concession contract for the exploration of the Romano lithium mine in Montalegre.

On November 7, 2023, the public prosecution service ordered searches in 17 private properties, five law firm offices, and 20 public and company offices in order to investigate possible active and passive corruption and malfeasance in the deals regarding the Romano mine in Montalegre, the Barroso mine in Boticas, and the H2Sines, and the Sines 4.0 data centre projects in Sines.

The public offices raided included the office of the prime minister’s chief of staff in the São Bento official residence of the prime minister, the Ministry of Infrastructure, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Action, the State Secretariat of Energy and Climate, Sines Town Council, and the national headquarters of the PS Socialist Party.

Sources: Expresso, ECO online news, Público, Portugal Resident, Sábado magazine, Lusa News Agency, Wikipedia Portugal, and Essential Business.