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Bribe charges shake Argentina's Senate
BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) -- Three senators gave up their immunity from prosecution Friday and four others offered to quit their seats as a bribery scandal threatened to erupt into Argentina's biggest political shake-up in years.
The crisis, which began with anonymous charges that Peronist senators took cash from government officials to approve labor market reforms in April, has smeared the Peronist opposition and the ruling center-left Alliance.
Peronist senators Eduardo Bauza, Angel Pardo and Ricardo Branda announced they will voluntarily forfeit congressional immunity from prosecution after Judge Carlos Liporaci formally asked the Senate to strip eight lawmakers of this protection from criminal charges. The judge said he had "coherent, grave and precise evidence that bribes were paid."
Another four senators -- including three Peronists and one from the Alliance, none of whom had been named by Liporaci -- said the scandal had so damaged the reputation of the 69-member Senate that they could no longer occupy their seats.
"Obviously senators' legitimacy is being questioned," said Sen. Jorge Yoma, a senior Peronist. He and three other senators said they would offer their resignations to the provincial chambers that appointed them to the national senate.
President Fernando de la Rua, who took power in December 1999 vowing to clean up the corruption that flourished in the 10 years of administration by Peronist President Carlos Menem, has already had to declare public support for his secret service chief and his labor minister who denied paying bribes.
Argentine politicians have long been expert at deflecting corruption charges and at closing ranks to defend their own. But this time the political pressure and intense news coverage fueled by off-the-record accusations and one alleged confession reached a level impossible to ignore.
"No one can resist cooperating with the courts when public opinion is clamoring for this case to be cleared up," said Carlos Alvarez -- the left-leaning vice-president who has provided the loudest voice in favor of investigation.
Alvarez says he hopes the scandal will serve to clean up politics in Argentina. He is deeply resented by the Peronists and now also by many in the center-left Alliance government.
De la Rua has striven to keep above the scandal, calling for all to cooperate with investigations and maintaining plans for trips abroad for much of the next two weeks.
Yoma said he believed the Senate would vote to strip all eight accused senators of their immunity in a special session Tuesday. Seven are Peronists and one is from the Alliance.
Few are above suspicion in Argentina where it is widely believed money has greased the machinery of power from the Congress to the courts for years.
Congress insiders speak of an atmosphere of fear and panic within Argentina's highest institutions, the like of which they have not known since military death squads hunted some of their colleagues after the 1976 coup.
Senators, including some of the most battle-hardened political operators in the country, are lying low. Their political allies have mostly left them to sink or swim.
Constitutional lawyer Jorge Vanossi, a former senator, said the suspect senators should step down or else "any law passed by the Senate will be under suspicion. If they vote to give a 112-year-old lady a pension, someone will shout 'Bribe!"'
Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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