Nicaragua’s comptroller general dies

Nicaragua’s Comptroller General admits there isn’t much he can do

Updated (Nov 15, 2014) - Former Comptroller General Guillermo Argüello Poessy died this morning in Managua, after months of battling illness related to diabetes. He was 73. Below is an interview he did with The Nicaragua Dispatch in June, 2012, where he talked about how difficult the war on corruption has become in Nicaragua.

Arguello

 

(The following interview was originally Published June 27, 2012, under the headline: Does Corruption Get a Free Pass in Nicaragua?) —

Guillermo Argüello Poessy might have the toughest job in Nicaragua. With an insufficient budget and an inadequate staff, the Comptroller General is charged with the daunting task of assuring transparency and accountability in a government that isn’t too keen on either.

Whether Argüello, 71, is still up to the challenge after more than 50 years of public service is another issue, however.

“I just want to live in peace,” Argüello told The Nicaragua Dispatch during a recent telephone interview. “I do what I can with my talents and experiences, but I will never turn this office into one of political persecution again, even if the media wants me to.”

Argüello, who has served as president of the government’s auditing office since the Alemán administration, says, “From my balcony, I can see everything that happens in government.”

But when asked how the levels of corruption in today’s government measure up to those of past administrations, Argüello says, “I don’t know, I don’t have a corruptometer.”

Given the lack of government funding available to combat public corruption and malfeasance, a corruptometer would be a handy tool to have in Nicaragua.

Instead, the Comptroller General’s office has to do it the old fashion way, with pencil and paper and painstakingly laborious audits conducted by a team of overworked and underpaid government auditors—many of which are eventually plucked away by the private sector, which can offer them something closer to a respectable salary.

In order to the Comptroller General’s Office to really do its job properly, Argüello says his office would need twice its current budget just to keep up with the routine auditing of thousands of government entities that he is supposed to be keeping honest.

But with inadequate funding, Argüello’s office has to pick, choice and prioritize which rocks to look under, the chief auditor says. “The requirements for my office are much more than the resources allow,” Argüello admits.

The Comptroller General says he asked President Daniel Ortega for a modest 10% budget increase for his office at the beginning of the year, but was told “that’s impossible.” If it weren’t for international funding from the Inter-American Development Bank and foreign governments such as Ecuador, the Comptroller General’s office would be in even sadder shape, Argüello said.

“We do what we can do,” he says. “If we could do more, we would. But if it weren’t for Ecuador, our job would be impossible.”

A poor government

Argüello isn’t the only government official crying poor these days. On June 12, Attorney General Julio Centeno went before the National Assembly with hat in hand to explain the dire poverty of the State Attorneys’ office, which he says is unable to fulfill its mandate to prosecute crime and combat impunity.

Centeno said his office, which is also supported by international aid, can afford to hire only 292 state attorneys to cover the entire country—about one-fourth the manpower they need to do their job.

“I respectfully ask the honorable National Assembly that they concern themselves with the institutional strengthening of the State Attorneys’ Office, because the weakness of our budget is being transmitted to the judicial system; without state attorneys there are not criminal proceedings,” he said. “We need more attorneys to fulfill the demands of the system.”
The honorable National Assembly, however, is concerned with other honorable causes.

Critics of the government claim the administration’s poor job performance combating corruption has more to do with politics than economics.

“There is no political will to investigate corruption, so the Comptroller’s Office has become totally inoperative. They see corruption but don’t do anything about it, and their only excuse is that they don’t have any budget,” says Luis Aragón, of Ethics and Transparency, the Nicaraguan affiliate of Transparency International. “The comptrollers should resign in protest, if they are as honorable as they claim to be.”

Aragón says the CGR was much more effective in the 1990s, with the same amount of funding (in real terms) and only one comptroller general. Now the CGR has five comptrollers general and is less productive than ever before, Aragón argues.
Argüello admits there have been political obstacles to his job, like when he tried to audit Roberto Rivas, the scandalous president of Nicaragua’s Supreme Electoral Council (CSE), but was blocked from doing so by the other four comptrollers general who are apparently protecting the portly bean counter.

But, Argüello says, that’s Nicaragua. And if people don’t like the system here, they need to change it rather than complain it doesn’t work.

“For now, this is what we’ve got,” Argüello says. “What other system is there?”

Worthless declarations of worth

Argüello takes offense to some of the other criticisms of his job performance, especially a recent report by the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH) that claims “No public official in this government, starting with the unconstitutional president himself, has complied with the legal requirement to present declarations of probity (declarations of net worth).”

“That’s the biggest lie CENIDH could say,” Argüello says. “I have the president’s declaration of probity and I have 21,000 others from the other officials in his government.”

The issue with the declarations of net worth is that they are private and pointless because there is no way to prove when someone is lying and no penalty even if they’re caught, Argüello says.

“If government officials don’t want to declare offshore accounts, they simply don’t do it and there’s no way for me to know,” Argüello says. “If they want to hide money, all they have to do is put it in a neighboring country—it’s that easy.”
Even if an official’s declaration of probity is completely fictitious, there’s no sanction for lying, Argüello says. The whole exercise of reporting personal wealth is so pointless that Argüello says he keeps the declarations locked away in private and doesn’t even look at them himself.

“If a government official omits a property or a hotel from his declaration, then what?” Argüello says. “How can I pretend to control this situation? How?”

Oddly enough, Argüello seems to find comfort in the massive scope of unchecked corruption; indeed, the fact that the problem is too big to fix takes him off the hook.

“Ideally, we would like to have government officials who are virtuous, honest and capable, but those are hard to find. Men like that do something else with their lives,” Argüello says. “At the end of the day, public officials are still citizens and we are all a product of society.”

“There is no place in the world where corruption doesn’t exist—it’s endemic,” Argüello says. “Where is there no corruption? Puta!”

The important thing for Nicaraguans to realize, he says, is that his office is not going to use corruption as an excuse to launch another political witch hunt.

“We are tired of persecution in Nicaragua,” Argüello says.

  • Jon Cloke

    Everybody who remembers the role of ‘Pues si’ Argüello and ‘Attorney General’ Julio Centeno in enabling the corruption of the Aleman era knows that such weak, corrupt persons are put in office precisely *because* they will do nothing about corruption – how else do they continue to find themselves (like a certain head of the CSE) in positions of power whatever the political colour of the government? It is not that nothing can be done about corruption in Nicaragua, it is that the aristocracy, FSLN, PLC or whoever fight fiercely against it and make sure that all the relevant offices of the state get filled by straw men and women. ‘Pues si’ and Gomez are put in position because they are past masters at the art of making sure nothing gets done, and for the international financial institutions, so long as they can continue to pay funds to the ‘anti-corruption’ regimes in return for meaningless statistics produced by the same people who steal those anti-corruption funds, then that constitutes ‘the fight against corruption’ – the IFIs don’t want anything meaningful done about corruption either, not if it occurs outside the strictures of the economic model they control and certainly not if it upsets the political status quo. Just one, big, happy, circle of corruption inside and outside Nicaragua for which the poorest pay….

  • Adevarul

    Thank you, Jon. Your post confirms what most are thinking.

  • Emmitt E. Estes

    I have personally been the target of corruption in Nicaragua. I am a legal resident of Nicaragua. We were invited to live in this country and made all types of promises of how great is is for the retired. The first process of applying for our residency was an ordeal. What we brought from the USA was supposed to be tax free. We paid tax on all of it. You can pay the tax but you can’t use the vehicle because you have to be a resident to register it. You really need to check things out very closely before you move here. We lived on the Masaya Highway (Vera Cruz) for a year and then decided to move to Las Penitas, Leon to live on the ocean. We found a home that was over priced but needed a place to live so we rented this home from North American. We agreed to a price and that we would have the home for three years. This was completely furnished and use of everything on the property. We asked for but did not get a written contract. His reply was we are americans and can trust each other. Never fall for this line!! The reason he did not want a written contract was because he is hiding fron the IRS of which he owes close to a million dollars and has a warrant for his arrest. A written contract would have proven he had this property and and was drawing income from it which he did not plan on reporting as required by law. He also asked us if he could put the property in our name. Why would someone that has known you for less than a month want to sign property over to you. Same reason, hiding it from the Internal Revenue Service.

    The 31st of March we moved to a small house waiting for the end of Holy Week so we could move into our new residence. On the 9th of April, we moved into our new permanent residence in Poneloya.

    I am 69 years old, I have never been arrested in my life. In order to qualify for a cedula you must have a clean police record in the USA. I am not a thief. On the 19th of April my house was surrounded by police, it was searched and I was arrested. Not one piece of evidence was found of anything that I was supposed to have stolen. Because I stole nothing. An apprehension order was place on me but one of the police said he was not going to arrest me because they found no evidence.. This officer then got a phone call from Leon and I was taken to jail in Leon. I have had two back surgeries, both knees replaced, neck and shoulder surgery. I was placed in a cell designed for two people which had eight. The place too bathe, drinking water and toilet facilities were all one in the same. My bed was a wet concrete floor with barely enough room to lay down because of the crowed conditions. People had to take turns sitting and standing because of being so crowded.
    After two days of being in jail I was taken before this judge that had been paid $2000 to keep me in jail and that is just what he did. Even though there was no evidence. We have friends in Nicaragua and they said get rid of your current lawyer because all he is gong to do is bleed you. We did get rid of this lawyer and got very lucky and got a great lawyer. My lawyer said that the document that I was arrested on and being held with was illegal and I was being held in jail illegally. Even though this judge had been paid off, he had no choice but to let me go. I paid 50,000 cords and was out on bail. I still had to face trial.

    The trial was set for the 29th of May 2012. Very fast for Nicaragua. The thought was that I would break down and pay the extortion before it ever went to trial. They could then split up the pie. Wrong. I am not going to pay for something I did not do. My attorney ask for a jury trial. This was to avoid a crooked judge. We got lucky on the judge. He was honest, knew the law and put up with no BS. The trial started as scheduled and in the pretrial, half of their case was thrown out because their documents were illegal. Ajury was selected and the trial,began. After two witnesses the trial was delayed because of another trial. We continued two weeks later and was delayed again because the prosecutor failed to show. Two weeks later we started again and selected another jury. This time the prosecutor presented four witnesses and two of them were caught lying. The were paid by the oposition. The Prosecutor then ask for another delay and got it. He said he had two more witnesses that would blow the case wide open and prove his case. My attorney stated that DA had plenty of time to prepare his case and we should move on. The following week, the trial commenced. The two witnesses? One didn’t show and the other said he had never seen me before in his life. My attorney then asked for a ruling and bring an end this this farce. The judge stated to the prosecution that no one had seen me steal anything, two witnesses had lied on the stand and there was absolutely no evidence to proceed. I was declared innocent by the judge. My attorney poled the jury and they said had it got to them they were going to declare me innocent also. I am now a free man again but. I am out $11000 dollars in legal fees, sleeping on a wet cement floor and standing all day on a cement floor has ruined my back and will probably need more surgery. My life was brought to a complete standstill for 3 months because of some very bad people.

    What am I going to do now? Nicaragua is my home now and I am not going to let people like this drive me from my home. My lawyer and I have our heads together and we are going after these people with everything we have. People like this do not need to be in the positions they are in and the others do not need to be walking around free. They are already turning on each other like rats trying to get off the sinking ship.

    Is there corruption in Nicaragua? You bet. The only way it will ever be done away with is to fight it every chance you get. Looking the other way wont get it. Fortunately there is a Lady in Managua that is trying to make a big dent.

  • Carlos Briones

    Disturbing. I feel for you. $11, 000 in legal fees appears excessive and the theft charges are unclear. What was stolen? Is the American consulate of any assistance with respect to both the ex-pat’s alleged misconduct and the jail/due process issues raised in your post?

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