A high-profile politician from Spain’s ruling People’s Party (PP) has died while under investigation for money laundering.
Scandal-hit Rita Barbera, who served as mayor of the Mediterranean city of Valencia for 24 years, died of a heart attack today in a hotel close to the Spanish Parliament in Madrid. Emergency services said paramedics fought for more than 30 minutes to save her life, but declared her dead at the scene.
On Monday, Barbera appeared before Spain’s Supreme Court to deny any role in alleged party financing irregularities uncovered in Valencia. Insisting she had done nothing wrong, Barbera told the court she was an honourable person, corrupt “neither economically nor morally”.
Barbera, who gave up her PP membership in September after she was put under investigation, was being probed as part of Operation Taula, which saw 24 local government officials from cities across Spain arrested on suspicion of corruption in January this year.
As news of her death spread, numerous PP members and Barbera’s lawyer suggested that presumption of her guilt among her political rivals might have contributed to her passing, noting that she had become depressed and was taking medication. One member of Congress said she had been the victim of a witch hunt.
Her opponents were less forgiving, with Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias commenting: “We’re not going to participate in a tribute to a person whose political journey has been scarred by corruption.”
Alongside allegations that she may have been involved in the acceptance of bribes in return for construction contracts during Spain’s boom years, Barbera had also come under attack for her lavish expenses. Documents leaked to the press by rivals last year revealed that she rented a €770-a-night hotel room while on government business in Italy.
In October, leading members of the PP were among 37 people who went on trial over allegations they had been involved in corrupt deals similar to those Barbera had been accused of. The trail – which is ongoing – revolves around suggestions that politicians and public officials took massive kickbacks from businesspeople in exchange for awarding them large public sector contracts without putting the work out to tender.
Barbera’s court appearance and subsequent death came just weeks after Transparency International (TI) revealed that two out of three Spaniards believe their public officials are corrupt, while 80% of the Spanish public feel their government is doing too little to deal with the problem. At the beginning of the year, TI’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI) showed that Spain had become one of the most corrupt countries in Europe.
“Very worrying is the marked deterioration in countries like Hungary, FYR of Macedonia, Spain and Turkey, where we’re seeing corruption grow, while civil society space and democracy shrink,” Anne Koch, TI’s Director for Europe and Central Asia, commented at the time.