Spain’s Socialists tell ex-minister to quit over alleged masks scandal

By Thomson Reuters Feb 26, 2024 | 8:45 AM

MADRID (Reuters) – Spain’s ruling Socialist Party on Monday gave former Transport Minister Jose Luis Abalos 24 hours to step down as a lawmaker after his assistant was arrested on suspicion of taking payments to facilitate contracts for masks during the COVID pandemic.

While Abalos, transport minister between 2018 and 2021, has not been accused of any crime, the PSOE believes he bears “political responsibility”, Esther Pena, a party spokesperson, said at a press conference in Madrid.

Abalos told La Sexta television over the weekend he denied any wrongdoing and had no plan to resign. He said he would have done if the suspected scandal had broken while he was minister.

Publico newspaper on Monday cited Abalos as saying that he has stepped down as chair of the interior affairs committee in parliament but was still thinking about whether to resign as a lawmaker.

The alleged scandal comes as Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez struggles to make headway in a new term with a government reliant on the precarious support of Catalan nationalists and amid heavy criticism of his agreement to concede a controversial amnesty in exchange for their votes in parliament.

Anti-corruption prosecutors accuse Abalos’ personal assistant Koldo Garcia of taking payments to act as a conduit between the government and Soluciones de Gestion y Apoyo a las Empresas SL, a company created in 2017 to supply electricity generators, according to court documents.

Prosecutors accuse Garcia of receiving payments after he helped the company win contracts to supply masks to Spanish ports and the state railway company ADIF, among others, while Abalos was transport minister.

Garcia’s lawyer did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Soluciones de Gestion y Apoyo a las Empresas SL declined to comment when contacted by telephone and did not immediately respond to an email.

If Abalos does step down, he would automatically be replaced with another Socialist lawmaker under Spain’s parliamentary system, so it would not have an impact on the party’s number of seats. If he refuses to step down but is expelled from the party he could continue to serve as an independent lawmaker.

Pena said there was no room for corruption in the party. The government is launching a parliamentary committee to investigate all contracts awarded during the pandemic.

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(Reporting by Charlie Devereux and Emma Pinedo; Editing by Aislinn Laing and Alison Williams)