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the euro zone

Going down

There was welcome and surprising news this week, in that Rodrigo Rato is definitely going to prison. Rato - former Spanish economy minister, deputy prime minister and ex IMF boss - has been sentenced to four-and-a-half years for using "black credit cards" between 2010 and 2012, during his time as chairman of Bankia.

The verdict was originally handed down last February but Rato appealed, no doubt hoping friends in high places would have a word with the judges. Not this time: on Wednesday, Spain's Supreme Court announced that it upheld last year's sentence. It's unlikely that the former IMF chief will serve the full four-and-a-half years, of course; but the failure of his appeal is a small yet encouraging sign that Spanish politicians are not above the law, as many seem to think they are.

The "tarjetas black" case, as it became known in the Spanish media, caused outrage when it broke in late 2014. Just as Spain was emerging from a tortuous recession, it was revealed that between October 2010 and November 2011, Rato - then chairman of a collapsing Bankia spent almost €100,000 on secret corporate cards. The purchases ranged from booze and shoes to cinema excursions, none of which he could apparently afford on his €2 million-a-year salary. Rato is said to have once spent €3,547 on alcoholic drinks in a single day. What a lunch that must have been!

The former Spanish economy minister claimed that such splurges were legitimate expenses (entertaining clients, perhaps?) and that he was innocent of nefarious dealings, but Spain's Supreme Court hasn't bought his defence. In their ruling on Wednesday, the judges said that Rato had "profited unfairly and allowed others to profit" during the "tarjeta black" bonanza; in total, 64 ex-Bankia executives have received sentences in connection with the scandal.

The fact that Rato was a top PP politician before moving to Bankia drags the Spanish Conservatives back into the corruption limelight. Yes, his prison sentence is for wrongdoing as a banker, not during his time in Spain's top political jobs (between 1996 and 2000, Rato was second deputy prime minister and the minister for economy and finance); but for many Spaniards, Rato represents a financial and political elite that considers itself above laws applicable to everybody else.

Many members of that elite belong or have belonged to the PP, which is why its current leader Pablo Casado is trying to clean up the party's image. Casado himself, though, is under investigation in connection with allegations that he fraudulently received a postgraduate degree from Madrid's King Juan Carlos University.

Rato's case is just one amongst many that concern the shady dealings of Spain's rich and powerful. But his confirmed prison sentence will hopefully set a precedent, thus showing that members of this widely-loathed elite can't rely on legal immunity.