Elites regularly profit with impunity from financial corruption. This is clearly demonstrated by the numerous billion-dollar financial scandals in recent years, including LIBOR rate fixing, tax evasion, commodity price fixing and financial mis-selling schemes. The political power of finance and its revolving door into government makes many bankers seem above the law. But this immunity is not unbreakable, as demonstrated by the wave of Spanish citizens now leading an anti-corruption charge unlike any that has come before.
Ending the Corruption Era
The case of Rodrigo Rato is perhaps the most interesting among some 150 high-level corruption cases scheduled to take place this year in Spain – involving over 2,000 elite figures in Spanish society. Rato was the country's Minister of Economics from 1996 to 2004, and a leading political force in the conservative Popular Party (PP) as well as managing director of the IMF (2004-2007) and chairman of Bankia, Spain’s largest bank (2010-12).
These institutions’ combined actions spurred Spain’s economic crash and intensifying poverty crisis, as Bankia’s massive debts were nationalized by the PP-controlled government and Rato's bank became the main recipient of the bailout deal with the EU and IMF. From these business-government arrangements, Rato and the rest of Spain's 1% profited while imposing austerity on the majority.
Last April, the Financial Times described Rato being shoved by a law officer during his arrest. “The touch lasted only a few seconds, but it will be seared into the mind of Rodrigo Rato — and of millions of Spaniards — for years to come,” wrote the paper. Millions saw the clip repeated on rolling TV coverage and the Internet. The Times article quotes an editorial by Spain’s El Mundo newspaper, illuminating its importance: “The precise moment in which the customs agent grabs his head... marks a point of no return, in which we leave behind an era.”
Translation: Rato and many others were no longer untouchable.
The case now underway against Rato and Bankia hinges around three aspects. First, the bank is charged with false advertising when it floated its stock for purchase. Second, it is accused of mis-selling toxic assets to unsuspecting members of the public. And third, it issued "black visa cards" to senior Bankia management, facilitating both tax evasion and bribery of politicians and government officials.
15MpaRato: Citizens Call Rato In
In May of 2012, on the first anniversary of the 15M movement that took to the squares in a two-month occupation that helped spur Occupy Wall Street four months later, 15MpaRato launched its plan to jail Rodrigo Rato. According to law, Spanish citizens or organizations can file complaints that judges will consider and decide whether, and whom, to prosecute. This is exactly what happened with Rato.
“One of the first things we did was publicize an anonymous dropbox, and we received information from the citizens on Rato and Bankia. This grew and grew and included receiving 8,000 pages from the bank employees,” Simona Levi from 15MpaRato told Occupy.com.
15MpaRato used global leaks, an open-source program that creates a secure Internet space to receive sensitive information. By early June of 2012, enough evidence had been collected to initiate the case against Rato. Victims were also found to stand as claimants.
Next, activists launched Spain’s first-ever political crowdfunding campaign to pay the legal fees associated with the case. The campaign reached its funding target in less than 24 hours, and the anonymous drop-box provided essential information to citizens eager to get involved. For instance, they discovered that Bankia employees had leaked internal documents that read “DO NOT SHOW THIS TO THE CLIENTS,” and were instructed to target unsuspecting customers to buy the bank's toxic assets that should have only been sold to financial investors.
Another major leak involved the "Blesa emails," revealing Miguel Blesa, director of Bankia from 1997 to 2010, and other senior Bankia executives complicit in a wide-ranging credit card scam. The information was leaked to Xnet, an anti-corruption and tech-freedom group founded in 2008, akin to a Spanish Wikileaks, which helped initiate the 15M demonstrations. The network has been central within 15MpaRato, and in early 2016, Xnet will act as Barcelona’s official anti-corruption advisor, setting up an online portal where citizens can report corruption.
Out of the 100 individuals investigated thus far, 66 bankers and politicians will soon face trial for their crimes – Rodrigo Rato being one among them. Levi, who was also a founder of Xnet, said: "15MpaRato is a guerrilla [group] with the concrete objective of ending the establishment’s impunity, and Rato is the perfect target. He is so well known, every grandmother recognizes him. Plus, when we publicly stated we would go after him, we said it would also pull others politicians and bankers in, all connected to this one guy.”
She added that the campaign to jail Spain's criminal bankers "is far more than making a statement that politicians and bankers are corrupt – as everyone knew this. You cannot attack the enemy on all fronts. You have to choose one focal point.”
15MpaRato’s website states that Rato is just the beginning, and that others responsible for Spain's financial crisis are going down next. Boldly and simply, it states: "We are going after them."
The campaign has already been successful in part because of one crucial strategic move: it highlighted the way Bankia committed false advertising when it floated its stock on the market. Though the group's attack began as a hunch, based on the fact that Bankia had sold a product that failed within a year, leaks confirmed the suspicions.
Levi suggested that strong communication and social networking also enabled the group's success. “You need to make what you do visible,” she said. Part of that visibility involves an English section of the website detailing the case, the leaks and the broad national media coverage it has received.
15MpaRato also includes an open-source database enabling anyone to analyze the leaks – a vital and direct source of information, considering the otherwise superficial coverage they've gotten by the BBC, The New York Times and the El Pais English edition. Responding to the mainstream media's portrayal of the corruption in Spain, Levi added: “We have found it is much easier to put in prison a banker or politician – even a hundred of them – than to get the press, the government and the institutions to recognize that this is the work of ordinary citizens.”