BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, last year's winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, found himself embroiled on Tuesday in a widening corruption scandal rocking politicians across Latin America.
Authorities said Santos' 2014 re-election campaign might have received an almost $1 million contribution originating from Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht, a company that has admitted to paying bribes across the region.
It was not clear what evidence existed to back up the claim or whether the alleged donations, which Santos denies, constituted a crime. Chief prosecutor Nestor Martinez, formerly a top aide to Santos, said only in a brief statement that he was alerting electoral authorities so they could investigate.
But just being associated with Odebrecht, which has admitted to paying $800 million in bribes across Latin America, is a major blow for Santos. His biggest political asset has been an internationally hailed reputation for rectitude that contrasts with the shady dealings of many of his rivals.
Santos had yet to comment, but his former campaign manager called any claim of a tie to Odebrecht unfounded and libelous.
When Odebrecht agreed in December to pay a $3.5 billion fine in the U.S. as part of a plea agreement, authorities in Colombia were swift to respond, becoming the first country outside Brazil to arrest former officials accused of taking bribes.
"So far no official from my government has been accused of taking bribes from Odebrecht, but if that should occur I want the entire weight of the law to fall on them," Santos said last month.
Among those jailed was Otto Bula, a little-known rancher who was a regional political ally of the senator cousin of former President Alvaro Uribe, Santos' chief opponent.
According to Martinez, Bula lobbied on behalf of Odebrecht and helped channel $4.6 million to still unknown recipients after the company was awarded a major highway contract. Most of the money went through companies in Panama and China, but two alleged transfers to Colombia of almost $1 million total purportedly ended up in the management of Santos' campaign, Martinez said, without commenting on the veracity of the claims.
Santos' aides were outraged and were quick to repeat their claim that Santos took no private contributions, from individuals or companies, during his 2014 campaign in which he narrowly defeated Uribe's former finance minister.
Transparency Secretary Camilo Encisco said Santos welcomed an investigation to remove any doubt about his probity.
"It's the word of a criminal, who is looking for legal benefits at any cost, against the word of a campaign manager," Enciso said. "We're certain that these investigations will reveal such affirmations to be false as has occurred on previous occasions."
Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.