Spain's ruling Socialists rocked by graft scandal
A scandal involving drugs, prostitution and kickbacks for public works is rocking Spain's ruling Socialists ahead of a year-end general election which polls suggest the party will struggle to win.
At the heart of the affair is Juan Bernardo Fuentes, who has been forced to resign as a Socialist lawmaker from the Canary Islands.
Public prosecutors allege the 60-year-old, also known as Tito Berni, collected kickbacks from businessmen in exchange for winning public contracts, European funds or exemptions from health inspections during the Covid-19 crisis.
To benefit from the scheme the businessmen allegedly made an initial payment of 5,000 euros ($5,345) to a sports association headed by Fuentes via a "mediator" -- businessman Antonio Navarro.
In exchange for additional payments of up to 3,500 euros, businessmen allegedly received VIP tours of parliament or were taken to cocaine-fuelled parties organised at nightclubs and a four-star hotels.
Navarro has told Spanish media that he also organised a dinner at a luxury restaurant in Madrid attended by 15 Socialist lawmakers during the pandemic despite pandemic restrictions in place at the time.
He has also said he staged parties for fellow businessmen that involved drugs, prostitutes and the consumption of Viagra.
Spanish media have published photographs of Fuentes they allege depict him with prostitutes in hotels. In one picture a woman can be seen embracing a bare chested Fuentes in a hotel room.
Fuentes committed the alleged crimes with his nephew, who was in charge of the livestock department on the Canary Islands.
The two men were remanded in custody on February 14 along with nine businessmen who are under investigation for their role in the so-called "mediator" affair.
Fuentes has denied all the allegations against him, including using prostitutes and taking drugs.
- 'So obscene' -
The affair has dominated headlines in Spain ahead of regional elections in May and a general election expected in December.
It is especially embarrassing because Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's Socialist party wants to abolish prostitution.
Until now prostitution has been tolerated in Spain, with many brothels operating as hotels or other lodging establishments, although sexual exploitation and pimping are illegal.
The scandal comes as most polls show the Socialists are trailing the main opposition conservative Popular Party (PP).
PP leader Alberto Nunez Feijoo has demanded that the general election be brought forward to coincide with the May regional elections, arguing the government "has lost the confidence of the Spanish people".
The details of the scandal are "so obscene, so pathetic, so shameful and it harms politics and public institutions so much, that we can't go on like this," he added.
The PP and far-right party Vox have called for the creation of a parliamentary committee of enquiry into the affair.
Sanchez became prime minister in June 2018 after former PP premier Mariano Rajoy was voted out of office in a no-confidence motion triggered by a corruption scandal.
The Socialists have defended themselves by pointing to the fact that they immediately ousted Fuentes as soon as the scandal broke.
The party has "zero tolerance" for corruption, said the head of the Socialist group in the lower house of parliament, Patxi Lopez.
Parliamentary Affairs Minister Felix Bolanos, who is seen as Sanchez's right-hand man, has called the affair "repugnant" while Agriculture Minister Luis Planas said he was "disgusted" by it.