La Nación journalist and author Hugo Alconada Mon on corruption, investigative reporting and why Argentina needs to make up its mind on campaign financing.
Along-standing contributor to the La Nación newspaper and the author of a number of investigations that have helped to expose some of the biggest corruption scandals in Latin America, Hugo Alconada Mon is one of the best-known faces of fair reporting in Argentina.
His latest book, La raíz (de todos los males) (Planeta, 2018), exposes a deep-rooted system of corruption and impunity that acts as “the root of all evil” in the country, branching out to spread its poisonous effects across politics and society.
In an interview with the Times, in the lobby of a hotel in downtown Buenos Aires, Alconada Mon sprinkles his answers with telling details that illustrate how the battle to solve this endemic problem will be far from easy.
For example, he recalls that it wasn’t that long ago that employees at the Anti-Corruption Office did not even have Internet access in their building. In order to actually work, they had to use the WiFi signal from the adjoining bar.
In the introduction to your book, you include a famous quote by the late businessman Alfredo Yabrán: “Power is impunity.” In that same interview from 1997, Yabrán said that being powerful “means having the chance to gain an advantage.” This idea of breaking the rules, that if you don’t cheat, you’re a fool. Is this a specific business ethos or a general problem of Argentina’s elite?
Lawyer Guillermo Jorge, one of the most distinguished corruption experts I know, talks about a ‘10-80-10’ system.
What does that mean? Ten percent of the population never pay bribes, businessmen who would even refrain from taking part in public works projects because they want to avoid having to deal with dark characters. Another 10 percent is comprised by ‘pirates,’ people who know the only way of being awarded a contract is through paying bribes. And then, [there’s] 80 percent of people who oscillate. If they can avoid making an illegal payment, they avoid it, but if those are the rules of the game, they take part.
I think that sums up my thoughts on why do we see so much corruption. Is it because that’s the way of conducting business? Is it because people sense that impunity is the rule and don’t think they will get caught? Or is impunity the result of widespread corruption?
It could be a combination of all those things. Tax evasion rates in Argentina are huge. Local taxation is high, but there are outright criminals too. I’m not talking about a lower-class, middle-class guy who evades taxes, I’m talking about people who have undeclared bank accounts in Switzerland, in Liechtenstein, people who appear in the ‘Panama Papers.’
How do you bypass cultural essentialism? The lament that “Argentines are like this” dilutes responsibility. How do you make the powerful more accountable for their actions?
There is structural corruption which requires systemic responses. Why would the beneficiaries of a system want to change that system, if changing it means they’ll go to jail and lose all their money? They have to be stupid or crazy. Change will come from outside the system, from those judges, journalists and union leaders who are not benefitting from corruption.
In the end, it’s all about society pushing for changes. But I still have some doubts. If a new Winston Churchill emerges and promises Argentines “only blood, sweat and tears,” insisting that our generation will not witness the results of our efforts, would Argentines still vote for him? I don’t really know.
In your book you argue that the “original sin” of this corruption scheme is the financing of politics. What is your opinion of the government’s proposal to allow companies to donate to political campaigns?
We need to change the electoral system. First, we need to take the National Electoral Directorate [the body responsible for organising the elections] out of from the government’s orbit. Second, let’s boost the Auditing Office of the National Electoral Court...
Let me stop you there. It’s surprising how ill-equipped the Auditing Office is. Do you agree?
The guys at the Auditing Office are very good, very capable, but they’re being sent to Vietnam to fight with chopsticks. What can they do? Even we journalists can search for illegal funding better than they do. [Sighs, then continues...]
Third, we need to abandon the current system of traditional ballot papers – I know there are people for and against each option – I’m more in favour of the single paper ballot system than I am of electronic voting. But we need to have this debate.
To answer your question: let’s suppose that companies in Argentina are allowed to fund political campaigns, and that we have, on one hand, one candidate in favour of nationalising the banks and another one in favour of complete deregulation. We know how this will turn out: he who favours the nationalisation of banks would earn zero and the pro-privatisation one would be backed by all the financial world.
Option number two, American-style: part-public, part-private financing. You go for the private, the sky’s the limit, try to raise as many funds as you can. But if you take the public, you have a limit, you can only raise a certain amount.
I served as foreign correspondent in the United States and everyone there knew that if you went for public funding the limit was US$100 million, while if you chose the big private money [route] you could raise US$1 billion, meaning the former is at a disadvantage.
Ten times bigger.
Exactly. And there’s this third option: everyone is forced to publicly finance their campaigns. Are we willing to do that?
Let’s say that we shorten the campaign period for elections and that, with the help of public broadcasting of political advertisements, the cost of a presidential campaign goes down to ‘just’ one billion pesos and that the State pays for that. If we take the 2015 campaign as an example, that would mean financing six presidential campaigns, from [Peronist leader] Daniel Scioli to [Workers’ Leftist Front lawmaker] Nicolás del Caño.
Some will say: ‘Outrageous! You’re giving the same amount of money to the candidate that received 38 percent of the vote in the primaries than to the one that got two percent!’ Others will exclaim: ‘Outrageous! We’re talking about six billion pesos for six candidates, in this time of recession, when I’m paying a lot in income taxes! With that money we could build eight children hospitals!’
Or we can leave everything as it is and get [casino mogul] Cristóbal López, [banker] Jorge Brito or [Techint CEO] Paolo Rocca to pay for the campaigns.
Once again, the question is: what does society want? Let’s face the consequences of what we want! If not we’ll keep lying to ourselves, believing that political campaigns are paid with money that comes from a couple of fundraising dinners. Don’t take me for a fool!
In your book you explain, in detail, how the Kirchnerite administrations dismantled a number of specialised control agencies, but the problems did not end with [Mauricio] Macri’s election as president. In fact, he placed Laura Alonso, a staunch pro-government lawmaker, at the head of the Anti-Corruption office. What differences can you see between Kirchnerism and Cambiemos when it comes to fighting corruption?
I think the previous government was more… brutal. If, in order to erase evidence they had to set a building on fire, they would go and search for a jerry can full of petrol. This government is more ‘sophisticated.’
Some systemic problems remain. The Anti-Corruption office still responds to the Executive branch. Budget remains an issue for most watchdog agencies. Officials may tend to be more well-intentioned – I don’t want to get in this debate – but the issue is that we still haven’t resolved a number of structural problems. Let’s imagine for a second that Laura Alonso is great at what she does, well, the structure in place allows the next evil person who succeeds her to destroy the Anti-Corruption Office again. Argentina needs institutions that can survive [the] names [of those in charge].
How would you evaluate the ‘revolving door’ phenomenon between this government and the private sector?
It’s still an open question. It will depend on what happens when some government officials leave their positions. Will they go back to the same private companies?
We have already witnessed cases of experts who come from the private sector and now, as government officials, are overseeing the very industries where they used to work. That’s why in the United Kingdom you have civil servants, where people can make a career out of it, the same way they do in France with the École nationale d’administration.
We had something like this in Argentina, with the AFIP tax bureau or with Vialidad Nacional [National Roads office], [instituions] which produced experts who were capable of outlining strategic plans or the setting of public bidding for contracting infrastructure.
Take the case of [former Energy minister Juan José] Aranguren. Is it good to have someone who comes from an oil company as head of the Energy Ministry? Because he may have the [industry] know-how but not necessarily the [know-how to set] an energy policy that is adequate for the country. Should we keep on searching for oil? Should we focus on Vaca Muerta [the shale and gas deposits located in Patagonia] or on renewables?
Speaking of our representatives. Today a national lawmaker earns some 108,000 pesos a month (some US$2,840), plus certain extras. Is it too much or too little?
I want them to be very well paid. We need professionals with respectable salaries, a good retirement plan and legal immunity. If I’m a doctor and I go and dedicate eight years of my life to serve as lawmaker, by the time I return to the private sector my practice will be gone. If I give my life to public service I will expect the State to make for up for that once my job is done.
Having said that, it depends. Do you live in Buenos Aires or in a province where the cost of living is inexpensive?
Now, if you were head of accounting somewhere and earned 350,000 pesos a month, you’ll find that 108,000 pesos is too little. If you want to hire experts for the AGN [Auditor General’s Office] or Sigen [Comptroller’s office], you’ll see that the guy working at PricewaterhouseCoopers or KPMG will find the position very unattractive.
Boca Juniors president Daniel Angelici has been in the spotlight after being accused of being an ‘operador judicial,’ a sort of shady figure related to the Judiciary. But how would you define this term?
A mediator, a valid interlocutor, a blackmailer, a corrupter… all these definitions are valid, depending on who we’re talking about. I know some who are top-notch professionals, ‘fixers’ in the best sense of the term. But others are criminals and should be behind bars.
What differences do you see between Angelici and Javier Fernández, a prominent shady figure in the Judiciary during the Kirchnerite era?
That they are able to influence certain judges and prosecutors and not others. But one thing they have in common is that they will always try to ‘get’ to you if they need to.
How does that work?
Companies, for example, share with one another the names of people that may ‘take care’ of certain cases.
Let’s say I’m an important judge. Well, they know that Pancho has access to me because we studied together and Laura too because we worked in the newspaper together. So they tell Pancho and Laura to tell me that the allegations against the accused [individual] are not like that, that this businessman is a good guy…
Some of the biggest corruption cases in Argentina are linked to public works projects. Why is that?
The laws are outdated. Some of these regulations are more than 70 years old. Then there’s the fact that there are few companies and they know each other too well. And finally, because millions are involved.
A lot of business leaders choose this line of work because it’s one sector that allows them to show results – ‘I built that bridge,’ that’s a tempting thing to say. Other businesses may be lucrative too, the financial sector, even the Conectar Igualdad [laptops for children] programme. But public works come with the ribbon-cutting, the big signs, the photo-ops with politicians.
You cannot do that with casinos, for example.
The chance of earning illegal money in the gambling sector is enormous. But the sector is viewed badly and considered a dirty, mafia-like line of work. What can a politician take out of it? It brings more problems than benefits, as [Buenos Aires province Governor María Eugenia] Vidal can tell you with her idea of allowing online betting.
You practice a form of journalism, investigative journalism, that is very difficult to do in Argentina. How many newspapers have an investigative team?
None. There are no investigative teams. There may be some isolated cases, but they’re more about individual efforts. I know very capable colleagues, in Buenos Aires and in the provinces – Irene Benito in Tucumán, Daniel Enz in Entre Ríos, Sergio Carreras in Córdoba, Mariela Arias en Santa Cruz...
It’s ironic, because this year we’ve seen dozens of awards being handed out to journalistic investigations. Prizes for journalists at a time of extreme weakness and precarious employment, don’t you agree?
I’m 44. If God gives me health, I don’t know what will be doing by the time I retire. I’m not sure the media industry will be similar in any way as it is now, because journalism is going through a transition. We’re the guys who moved from carriages to the Ford T.
New technologies give us huge opportunities: to investigate, to promote our investigations, to find new sources. But at the same time, they don’t allow us to predict the road ahead. The Internet has yet to offer a sustainable business model.
Don’t you think that in a time of excess of information the impact of a scoop or a lengthy investigation gets lost in the noise?
I take it as a challenge. Just as there are professional news-hunters, there are experts in trying to eclipse information.
You like to say it took you 20 years to write this book. By reading it, one can tell it touches a number of subjects you investigated in depth, but also other topics. Do you believe that a journalist without your recognition could have been allowed to publish an investigation with so many off-the-record sources?
No, and I see where you’re going. It’s one of the biggest dilemmas in our line of work: the abuse of the off-the-record arrangement. There are far too many journalists who always seem to find the exact wonderful off-the-record quote they need for their great headline. It’s true.. it’s one of the hardest things for me. That’s why I began my investigation by demanding papers, papers, papers. Because I know readers might ask: ‘Why should I believe you?’ And that’s why in the book though I include those off-the-record sources, I stress that those claims are based on this certain case, file number such and such. I know we need to try and bring the sources to speak on the record, but we journalists know the consequences of going public.
Were there any topics you left out of the book that you’d like to have included?
One: co-operative and mutual insurance companies. Two: Cryptocurrencies.
The formers have been home to many bribery cases and illegal payments. The latter is a whole new world I’m just starting to look into.
I’m getting this weird feeling that we’re looking too much at public works, the most traditional business, while the real ‘pirates’ are using cryptocurrencies to launder money.
What are your plans for 2019?
I’m trying to close two incredibly hard investigations before the electoral campaign begins – and they accuse me of being part of a ‘smear campaign.’