Sanchez and Begona Gomez. It was a fresh blow for Sanchez, whose left-wing government has faced scrutiny over another politically-charged graft scandal involving the procurement of face masks during the Covid-19 pandemic. Image Credit: AFP

MADRID: Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez was under pressure to give answers Wednesday after a court said it had opened an investigation into his wife Begona Gomez on suspicion of graft.

It was a fresh blow for Sanchez, whose left-wing government has faced scrutiny over another politically-charged graft scandal involving the procurement of face masks during the Covid-19 pandemic.

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The court statement came several hours after online news site El Confidencial said investigators were probing Gomez’s ties to several private companies that received government funding or won public contracts.

The announcement sparked an angry backlash from the right-wing opposition Popular Party (PP), which has harangued Sanchez for months about his wife’s alleged business ties.

In a brief statement, the Madrid court said it had “opened an investigation into Begona Gomez for the alleged offence of influence peddling and corruption”. It also said the probe was “subjected to a secrecy order”.

The case was opened on April 16 following a complaint by Manos Limpias (Clean Hands), the court added - referring to an anti-corruption pressure group whose leader is linked to the far-right.

Talks during airline bailout

El Confidencial said the probe was linked to the alleged ties she had with Spanish tourism group Globalia, which owns Air Europa.

It said she had twice met with Javier Hidalgo, Globalia’s CEO at the time, when the carrier was in talks with the government to secure a huge bailout after it was badly hit by the plunge in air traffic due to the Covid-19 crisis.

At the time, Gomez was running IE Africa Center, a foundation linked to Madrid’s Instituto de Empresa (IE) business school, a position she left in 2022.

El Confidencial said Africa Center had “signed a sponsorship agreement with Globalia in 2020” and that Gomez had also “held a private meeting with its CEO Javier Hidalgo at the company’s offices.

“At the same time Globalia was negotiating a multi-million euro bailout with the government,” it noted.

Last month, Globalia told El Confidencial that Hidalgo and Gomez had met at its Madrid offices on June 24 and July 16.

Between those dates, Sanchez’s government on July 3 announced the creation of a 10-billion-euro fund to bail out strategic firms worst hit by Covid.

Four months later, his cabinet approved a 475-million-euro lifeline for Air Europa, the first Spanish company to tap the funds.

Investigators are also looking into two letters of support Gomez allegedly provided for a joint venture bidding for a public contract, El Confidencial said.

The joint venture’s main shareholder was consultant Carlos Barrabes, who has ties to the department run by Gomez at Madrid’s Complutense University.

It won the contact, beating 20 other rivals, and was awarded 10.2 million euros, it said.

‘Trumpesque practices’

Manos Limpias, which filed the complaint, is headed by lawyer Miguel Bernad.

Bernad was initially sentenced to four years behind bars in 2021 over a scheme to extort major firms, but last month was acquitted by the Supreme Court for lack of evidence.

Questioned in Wednesday’s parliamentary session about the El Confidencial story, Sanchez told lawmakers: “Despite everything, I still believe in Spain’s justice system.”

Senior PP official Ester Munoz said it was “imperative” he explain.

“His family is being investigated by the court... it is important enough that the prime minister explains himself to the Spanish people.”

Already, in a parliamentary session last month, PP leader Alberto Nunez Feijoo had warned Sanchez there would be an investigation.

“If you refuse to give explanations again.. there will be a specific investigation into matters affecting those closest to you, a parliamentary probe for sure, and a judicial one if necessary.”

But Sanchez’s deputy, Budget Minister Maria Jesus Montero, hit back.

“They are using a spurious complaint by a far-right organisation to defame and slander the prime minister,” she said.

“We will not let these Trumpesque practices undermine Spain’s democracy.”