Ex-Costa Rican prez sentenced to 5 years for graft

AP News
Posted: Apr 27, 2011 9:34 PM
Ex-Costa Rican prez sentenced to 5 years for graft

A former Costa Rican president who briefly served as chief of the Organization of American States was convicted of corruption charges Wednesday and sentenced to five years in prison.

Capping a yearlong trial, a judge found Miguel Angel Rodriguez guilty of instigating corruption but absolved him of illegal enrichment, citing reasonao ble doubt. He was also barred from any government jobs for 12 years.

Rodriguez, 71, was president in 1998-2002. He became OAS president in 2004 but the corruption scandal forced him to resign two weeks into his tenure.

Rodriguez and other former government officials were charged with taking bribes in exchange for giving the Latin American branch of the French telecom company Alcatel a $149 million cellphone contract with the Costa Rican Electricity Institute while he was president in 2001. Seven others charged in the case were sentenced to between five and 20 years in prison.

Rodriguez, who maintains his innocence, listened to Judge Rosaura Garcia's verdict with a stony expression. An hour earlier, he had arrived at court surrounded by family and smiling widely.

"What reasons did they have for saying I was an instigator?" Rodriguez said at a news conference that he abruptly ended and stormed out.

The former president will remain free pending appeals, a process that could take months or even years. However, he was barred from leaving the country and ordered to appear before judicial authorities once a month.

In an interview with The Associated Press earlier this week, Rodriguez said the accusations against him were political and accused the attorney general of using his case to further his career. He said that regardless of the verdict, he would file a lawsuit seeking damages against those who have accused him.

"There were serious violations against my human rights," Rodriguez said.

Jose Antonio Lobo, a former top executive at Costa Rica's power and telephone company and the main witness against Rodriguez, testified that he accepted a $2.4 million "prize" for the cellphone contract with Alcatel. He said Rodriguez asked for a majority of the money and had received $510,000 in cash.

The judge, however, ruled there was insufficient evidence that Rodriguez personally received money in the scandal. Rodriguez would have faced up to two more years in prison if convicted of illegal enrichment.

Garcia said Rodriguez knew government officials were taking bribes and "instigated them to accept the payments." She said five years was the maximum for the crime.

Rodriguez acknowledged getting $140,000 from Lobo, but he said it was merely a loan to finance his campaign for the OAS leadership.

It is the second time a former Costa Rican president has been convicted of corruption charges. Rafael Calderon, who was president in 1990-94, was sentenced to five years in prison in 2009 for embezzling funds from a Finnish loan intended for medical equipment for public hospitals. He, too, remains free pending appeals.