Argentine graft probe dims Boudou's election glow

Reuters News
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Posted: Apr 10, 2012 1:24 PM
Argentine graft probe dims Boudou's election glow

By Helen Popper

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - The election night celebrations must seem a distant memory for Argentina's vice president, Amado Boudou, as he faces intense scrutiny over an influence-peddling investigation just four months after taking office.

Argentina's biggest newspapers have seized on suspicions that the former economy minister helped a company that specializes in printing bank-notes and identity documents get out of bankruptcy to benefit alleged business associates.

Boudou, a youthful 48-year-old bachelor fond of rock guitar and motorbikes, has denied any wrongdoing and the evidence against him so far appears to be thin.

But headlines about corruption are bad news for center-left President Cristina Fernandez as a slowing economy, inflation and increasingly off-beat policies erode her popularity.

Fernandez has been keeping a distance from her hand-picked vice president, suggesting she fears paying a political price.

"It's a minor (legal) offense but in political terms it's complicated, very complicated," said Alberto Fernandez, a former cabinet chief who was skeptical about the president's decision to choose the relatively inexperienced Boudou as her running mate.

"History is proving me right," he said.

Boudou says his only interest in trying to keep the company afloat was to help save jobs - a pillar of the government's economic policy. The firm, which was called Ciccone Calcografica, now operates under the name Compania de Valores Sudamericana (CVS).

"There was nothing outside the law in my actions as economy minister," Boudou said in a weekend speech, firing off a series of accusations against the country's "media mafia," the judge investigating the case and other public figures.

He spoke a day after Judge Daniel Rafecas ordered a raid on a luxury apartment owned by Boudou in the upmarket Puerto Madero neighborhood of Buenos Aires.

Opposition politicians, who have struggled to gain ground since their poor showing in October's election, said Boudou's outspoken defense was a sign of his desperation.

"The vice president showed that he feels cornered," said Manuel Garrido, a lawmaker from the opposition Radical party. Others said Boudou's predicament reflected splits and power struggles within Fernandez's administration.

Boudou, who used to be a nightclub DJ in his seaside hometown of Mar del Plata, won the president's trust when she nationalized private pensions in 2008. He was head of the state pensions agency ANSES at the time.

As economy minister, he led the exchange of some $12.6 billion in defaulted bonds for new debt in 2010, part of Fernandez's efforts to patch up ties with creditors after Argentina's record $100 billion default in 2002.

Naming Boudou as her running mate, Fernandez shrugged off his former preference for free-market economic policies and cited his loyalty - an important concern since an acrimonious split with her former vice president, Julio Cobos, early in her first term.

Her decision to pick Boudou on the grounds of trust means she could find it harder to dodge the fallout if the influence-peddling case develops.

"Precisely because of the Cobos experience ... and having based her choice on loyalty, she's very exposed now," said Mariel Fornoni, director at the Management & Fit polling firm.

Neither economy ministers nor vice presidents have had much power in recent years, but Boudou's move into the more political role was seen as putting him among Fernandez's field of potential successors.

"TOXIC ASSET"

Even before last week's apartment raid and Boudou's controversial defense, Fernandez's popularity was losing ground following her re-election with 54 percent of the vote. Her approval rating fell 17 points to a 13-month low of 42 percent in the last Management & Fit monthly poll.

Corruption scandals are common in Latin America's No. 3 economy but with tightened controls on dollar purchases and imports riling savers and business leaders, the allegations could sour the mood further.

"Cristina could be seriously weakened in a context of a slowing economy, where corruption normally has a bigger impact," said Sergio Berensztein, director or the Poliarquia consulting firm, saying Boudou had become "a toxic asset."

For now, Fernandez's strategy has been to send ministers out to defend him and steer clear of the affair herself.

Any sign the legal investigation could threaten her position ahead of next year's mid-term election might persuade her to oust him once the current noise has died down, Berensztein said.

"When officials have been accused of corruption, they've let them go sooner or later," he said. "At first she tries to protect them but then she gets rid of the toxic assets."

(Editing by Kieran Murray and Bill Trott)