Monday, March 9, 2015

Friends in High Places

Judge Pretelt: In the middle of the storm.
When El Tiempo columnist Maria Isabel Rueda recently interviewed Constitutional Court Pres. Jorge Pretelt, she was impressed that Pretelt brought along the court's ex-president, Rodrigo Escobar Gil.

Because magistrate Pretelt is embroiled in allegations that he demanded a 500 million peso bribe in order to reverse a ruling against the Fiduciaria Petrolera S.A. oil company, Rueda asked Escobar Gil whether he was working for that company, known as Fidupetrol.

Escobar told her he was not.

But a few days later, Rueda writes, she learned that Escobar Gil had in fact signed a contract to help Fidupetrol in its battle to reverse a 22 billion peso ruling by the Supreme Court against the company. Fidupetrol's case was in Escobar Gil's old stomping ground, the Constitutional Court.

The episode is in the news because Pretelt, the Constitutional Court's current president, stands accused of asking for a 500,000,000 peso bribe in order to produce a court ruling favoring Fidupetrol. As it turned out, the court ruled against the company. Its attorney Víctor Pacheco then accused Pretelt of demanding a bribe to ensure that Fidupetrol's tutela succeeded and then failing to fulfill his promise. Pretelt denies the bribery accusation, but acknowledges that Pacheco visited him at home. Pretelt has taken a leave of absence.

Victor Pacheco, the man who started it all.
Update: El Tiempo reports that Pacheco, apparently contradicting himself, told prosecutors that Pretelt had in fact instructed Pacheco to give money to another court judge, Mauricio Gonzalez. Pacheco later informed Gonzalez, who made the affair public.

El Tiempo examined Pretelt's finances and found that he has acquired a large amount of property over recent years. Pretelt denied any wrongdoing and pointed out that he comes from a wealthy family.

Whatever the truth about the alleged bribe, the mere fact of an ex-court president representing a company with a case before the court calls the high court's version of 'justice' into question.

'La Ley Para Los de Ruana' - A common saying meaning
that only the poor have to obey the law.
After all, who can doubt that a an ex-court high court magistrate - much less its president - still has powerful influences on the court, whose inner workings he knows intimately and on which he must still have friends and political allies?

In this case, Fidupetrol's machinations failed them. But how many powerful people and companies have bent courts to their interests thru bribery and undue influence? And if that's the case on Colombia's top courts, how much corruption is happening in local courts? I now that I've heard multiple stories about people slipping judges money to get convicted relatives off with light sentences. And, the repeated spectacle of drunken drivers responsible for fatal accidents receiving home detention also undermines faith in the courts.

To rebuild respect for its courts, Colombia needs to take a few basic steps, including requiring more transparency about court officials' property and income and prohibiting retired judges and other court officials from working on cases before the institutions they recently belonged to.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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