After enacting modifications to Spain's sedition and sexual assault laws, Pedro Sánchez's government is planning yet another tweak to the penal code. This one introduces a new crime of "illicit enrichment of public officials", punishable by up to three years in prison. Politicians would be guilty of this offence if found to possess more than 250,000 euros that cannot be accounted for - a rather large amount that sets the bar very low. But even with a political class as corrupt as Spain's, is a new law of this kind actually necessary?
Take Rodrigo Rato and the "Black Credit Cards" case. Rato, IMF chief between 2004 and 2007 and economy minister under Mariano Rajoy before that, is said to have racked up almost 100,000 euros on limitless corporate cards during his two-year stint at the helm of Bankia, just before it tanked in 2012. According to the new law, then, he might not have been guilty of "illicit enrichment" - because he didn't spend enough!
Rightly, though, Rato did receive a sentence of 4.5 years in connection with the use and distribution of "tarjetas negras". This suggests that Spain's penal code is already sufficiently well-equipped to deal with dodgy business leaders and politicians, under sections that deal with serious financial crime.
That conclusion is also backed up by the so-called "Gurtel" case, which had a hugely damaging effect on the Conservatives. But it's important to remember that the Socialists, too, have been guilty of financial misdemeanors on a grand scale. The best-known is Andalucía's 700-million-euro "ERE" scandal, in which the ringleaders were either given prison sentences or banned from office for misuse of public funds and/or misconduct.
In fact, seen in one way, the new corruption law appears tailor-made for on-the-make politicians, enabling them to hoard money until the arbitrary quarter-of-a-million ceiling is hit (which a clever accountant could no doubt ensure never happened). What determines whether or not a public figure - or anybody else - is guilty of "illicit enrichment" is not the amount of money they acquire, but the means by which it's acquired, as shown by the "Tarjeta Negra", Gurtel and ERE cases. That's why Rato ended up behind bars, even though his ill-gotten gains were worth less than half the amount stipulated in the proposed new legislation.
There's an interesting parallel here with the plight of Spain's emeritus king. If Juan Carlos is tried for harassment in London, it won't be under laws designed specifically for ex-monarchs: it'll be according to legislation that would also apply to an "ordinary" citizen accused of bugging an ex-girlfriend. Similarly, as ordinary citizens as well as public officials, politicians are beholden to the laws against financial crime that apply to everyone else - and subject to the same punishments when they break them.