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I did not pay for my US medal, says Aznar

26-07-2004

From Edward Owen in Madrid

The Times:

THE former Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar is at the centre of a row over allegations that he approved the payment of $2 million (£1.1 million) to Washington lobbyists to secure a rare Congressional Gold Medal of Honour.

Spain’s former UN Ambassador and other allies have said that the payment was made to promote the image of Spain before Señor Aznar’s address to the US Congress last January. But documents obtained by a Spanish radio station appear to suggest that the main aim was to boost flagging interest in the medal proposal and garner the necessary congressional votes. Only after contracting the Washington lobbyists, a firm of lawyers, did Señor Aznar obtain the required support.

Señor Aznar, a supporter of the invasion of Iraq, and whose centre-right Popular Party (PP) was defeated in March’s general election, said that those who accused him of using public funds to win the medal “deserved contempt”.

But José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, Spain’s new Prime Minister, said that he was considering cancelling the $2 million contract with the lobbyists, adding: “I would not have done such a thing.”

The Spanish radio channel SER, which is sympathetic to the ruling socialist party, broke the story at the end of last week.

Ramón Gil Casares, a senior official at the Foreign Ministry until the changeover of governments, confirmed that the contract with Piper Rudnick in Washington was signed in secret by Javier Rupérez, the then ambassador, three months before the election with a clause “guaranteeing confidentiality”.

Piper Rudnick describes itself on its web page as employing 975 lawyers across the United States. Its consultants include George Mitchell, the former Senate majority leader.

SER said that it had documents that included the contract instructions and details of the initial payment of $700,000 by the Spanish Foreign Ministry through the Washington embassy, and various invoices averaging $1,000 a meeting with officials at the embassy.

The instructions suggest Spain was anxious that Señor Aznar should be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal “because he is a firm and unconditional ally of the US and for his support in the war against terrorism”.

The original medal propo-sal, made in May last year by Congressman Jim Gibbons, attracted scant support. When Piper Rudnick was contracted on December 30 there were only 148 signatures in favour of Señor Aznar’s medal in the 435-seat House of Representatives. But thereafter the necessary 290 signatures to start the official award process were obtained, rising to 306 now. The recommendation still has to be approved by the Senate, where it requires a two-thirds majority.

Just before January 30, when Señor Aznar became one of the few foreign leaders to address Congress, the lobbyists’ activities intensified, with many calls to congressmen, SER claims. The lawyers also helped to write his speech to Congress. Inocencio Arias, the former PP-appointed envoy at the UN, said that the lobbyist had been contracted to promote Spain’s image in the US. “It was normal for them to help Señor Aznar,” he said.

PAST HONOURS

Foreign leaders who won the Congressional Gold Medal:
Winston Churchill, 1969
Queen Beatrix I of the Netherlands, 1982
Nelson Mandela, 1998
Pope John Paul II, 2000
Tony Blair, 2003

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/newspaper/0,,170-1191644,00.html

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