Spain sentences 50 in huge property corruption scandal

A Spanish court Friday handed down jail sentences and large fines to some 50 city officials and business executives over a vast system of property-related corruption in the glitzy southern beach resort of Marbella.

The scandal, which broke in March 2006, two years before the catastrophic collapse of the Spanish property bubble, led to the unprecedented dissolution of the city council.

Former city planning advisor Juan Antonio Roca received the heaviest sentence: 11 years in jail and a 240-million-euro ($326-million) fine for setting up a "generalised system of corruption", said the sentence delivered by a court for the province of Malaga in which Marbella lies.

A judge read out a summary of the 5,000-page sentencing document, wrapping up a complex, years-long case centred on the payment of millions of euros in bribes to city officials by property developers.

Roca arrived at the Marbella city hall in the 1990s during the infamously corrupt reign of populist right-leaning mayor Jesus Gil, a former president of Atletico Madrid football club who died in 2004.

Roca, who accumulated great power under Gil and managed to maintain his sway under Gil's successors Julian Munoz and Marisol Yague, was found guilty of accepting hundreds of millions of euros in bribes from construction companies.

He funnelled part of the cash to city officials to convince them to rezone land to allow lucrative property developments or to award city contracts to the corrupt businesses.

"The goal was political control of the city hall to gain financial benefit, Roca having acted as de facto mayor in Marbella for years," the court said.

Then Socialist prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's government dissolved the Marbella town council in April 2006 in the wake of the scandal and appointed an auditors' commission to take over administration until local elections in 2007.

It was the first time since Spain returned to democracy following the death of General Francisco Franco in 1975 that a government had taken such a step.

After a trial that began three years ago, with 800 hours of hearings and appearances by 400 witnesses and experts, Gil's successors paid the penalty, too: Munoz was sentenced to two years in jail and Yague to six years in jail and a 2.3-million-euro fine.

Among the business executives, sentences ran from six months to six years. More than 40 of the 95 accused were found not guilty.

The scandal, baptised "Malaya", also snared the Spanish diva Isabel Pantoja.

Pantoja was sentenced in April to two years in prison and a fine of 1.5 million euros for money laundering during the rule of Munoz, who was her lover at the time.

But it was under Gil's reign from 1991 to 2002 that the jet-set resort became a byword for corruption.

Three years ago, a Spanish judge even asked British actor Sean Connery to testify about the 1996 sale of his former seaside villa near Malaga.

Though Connery was never suspected or charged with any wrongdoing himself, the judge was investigating the 2004-2005 construction of a complex of 72 apartments where the villa once stood, despite planning rules allowing only five homes.

The Oscar-winning actor and his wife sent the judge a letter declining his request for reasons of "age and state of health".

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