Peru's Congress clears ex-ministers of corruption


LIMA, Peru (AP) -- Politics drove the decision by national lawmakers not to charge three ex-ministers with abusing public office in a government kickbacks scandal, the head of the congressional committee investigating the case alleged Friday.

Congress voted 58-35, with two abstentions, to clear the ex-ministers late Thursday.

The ruling "represents a pact of impunity between the three traditional parties," said opposition congressman and committee head Daniel Abugattas.

Abugattas had issued a preliminary report charging the three ex-ministers with abusing their public offices in a case involving alleged bribes to a state oil executive for steering contracts to Norwegian Oil company Discover Petroleum.

The scandal broke in October when a TV channel aired illegally intercepted telephone conversations in which a lobbyist close to President Alan Garcia's government allegedly discussed the bribes with a state oil executive.

Three members of the investigating committee -- belonging to the governing APRA party and its two conservative allies in Congress, respectively -- broke ranks with Abugattas and issued a majority opinion clearing the ex-ministers.

Congress approved the majority opinion, while Abugattas' report received near-unanimous support from the opposition.

"My reading of the vote is that Congress tried to blindly protect foreign investment in Peru, without caring if it brings corruption," Abugattas told Lima-based RPP radio.

The ruling approved by Congress did recommend criminal charges against several lobbyists, state oil executives and the CEO of Norway's Discover Petroleum, Jostein Kjerstad.

Discover representatives deny wrongdoing and have called corruption charges politically motivated.

Abugattas said that while Congress did not charge former chief Cabinet minister Jorge Del Castillo -- Garcia's one-time right-hand man -- its ruling does present evidence of wrongdoing that should be investigated by state prosecutors.

In the wake of the scandal, Garcia voided five contracts won by Discover and accepted the resignation of his entire Cabinet after tapes surfaced involving Del Castillo. Ten of the 17 ministers later resumed their posts.

Del Castillo, who was not rehired, admits to meeting with the lobbyists but denies any wrongdoing.

Last week, police arrested two active and three retired naval officers who allegedly used military equipment to run an illegal wiretapping racket through their private security company, Business Track.

The lawyer of imprisoned lobbyist Romulo Leon, one of the two men caught on tape, alleges that Business Track was hired to intercept his telephone line by Petro-Tech Peruana SA, a company competing with Discover Petroleum for contracts in a September public auction.

Petro-Tech has repeatedly rejected links to the wiretaps but acknowledged last week that it hired Business Track in 2006 to audit its computer security systems.