The high profile defendants in the “ERE” case filed into a Seville court on Wednesday for the first day of a trial that is expected to go on for several months.
Among the accused are two former presidents of the Socialist-run Junta de Andalucía, Manuel Chaves and José Antonio Griñán, as well as 20 former officials at the regional government, among them six ex-ministers.
The trial will scrutinise the alleged corrupt practice and embezzlement within the regional authority over almost an entire decade between 2001 and 2010.
The case broke into the headlines in 2013 when several arrests were made in connection with an investigation into irregularities concerning the granting of subsidies to help struggling businesses.
Most of the grants under scrutiny were to help firms pay redundancy and early retirement packages in order to reduce their workforces and stay in business.
The case got its name from the acronym ERE (which stands for 'expedientes de regulación de empleo') used in cases of mass redundancies.
The investigation revealed years of apparent abuse of the system: numerous names that appeared on the lists of employees to be paid off belonged to people who had never worked for the firms applying for the funds, and some of the firms had been set up with the sole aim of receiving the subsidies.
The suspects arrested included Francisco Javier Guerrero, former director general of Employment, and his driver who allegedly received benefits through firms created for the purpose and spent the money on cocaine and parties. Another branch of the case involved over-inflated commissions for insurers and intermediaries.
Manuel Chaves, who was president of the Junta de Andalucía between 1990 and 2009, is among the seven defendants accused of corrupt practice. The prosecution believes that he was aware of the “opaque” system being run by the agency IFA-IDEA responsible for processing the subsidy claims. Magdalena Álvarez, Andalusian minister for Finance between 1994 and 2004, who, like Chaves, went on to become a central government minister in Madrid in the cabinet of Socialist prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, is among this group of seven who face a ten-year ban on holding public office - the penalty called for by the public prosecution - or a two-year prison sentence called for by the PP party's prosecution case.
Embezzlement “by omission”
Chaves' successor, José Antonio Griñán, faces charges of embezzlement as well as corrupt practice. Griñán was regional finance minister between 2004 and 2009 and president from 2009 to 2013. The prosecutor believes that he not only knew about the system but also failed to act on warnings from auditors about the inappropriate use of funds. This, says the prosecution, amounts to embezzlement by omission. Griñán faces a six-year prison sentence and a 30-year ban on public office. The 14 others accused of the same two offences face between six and eight years in prison.
This is not the first time that former presidents of a Spanish region and officials have been on trial for a criminal offence, however it is the first time that the high profile defendants are not accused of increasing their own personal wealth through an illegal system.
Wednesday's court session involved the prosecutors reading out their accusations, calling for a total of 114 years in prison for the defendants. Thursday saw the defence lawyers laying down their case. The representatives of the two former presidents stated that their clients neither took part in the awarding of the subsidies nor knew about the irregularities.