Colombian president Santos apologises for corrupt firm's donations

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA: Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos apologised to Colombians on Tuesday after revelations that a scandal-tarred Brazilian construction company illegally paid costs related to his 2010 campaign.

Santos' apology came after his former campaign manager, Roberto Prieto, acknowledged for the first time that Odebrecht paid $400,000 to a vendor to print two million campaign posters during the final stretch of the 2010 race, though he said the president had no knowledge of the irregular payment.

"I deeply regret and ask forgiveness to Colombians for this embarrassing act that should never, never have happened and about which I just found out," Santos said in a video message. "I never authorised nor did I have knowledge of these actions, which were carried out in direct violation of the ethical norms and controls I demanded be put in place during the campaign."

The revelation that surfaced in local media last week is the latest to tarnish Santos' reputation for rectitude by associating the Nobel Peace Prize winner with Odebrecht, which has admitted to paying almost $800 million in bribes across Latin America.

Last week, a polling company that worked for Santos' 2014 re-election said it received $1 million from the Brazilian company. Prieto himself has been accused by a jailed lobbyist hired by Odebrecht of receiving $1 million in cash for the Santos campaign, an accusation Prieto denied in an interview Tuesday with Blu Radio. Odebrecht is also accused of covering $1.6 million in campaign bills for Santos' conservative rival in the 2014 race.

For many Colombians tired of shady dealings from the country's political elite, the accusation recalled the covert way the Cali drug cartel funded President Ernesto Samper's 1994 campaign. Presidential campaign contributions by companies are illegal in Colombia, but like many places throughout Latin America, candidates regularly keep a second, undeclared war chest of private contributions to finance the high cost of running for office.

Although Santos is at no risk of being impeached like Samper nearly was, the accusations are likely to further damage his standing with elections to choose his successor 14 months away and an uneasy coalition in congress needed to implement a peace accord with leftist rebels showing signs of fraying.

Santos' approval rating stood at 24 percent in February, close to the lowest since he took office. The same Gallup survey found that Colombians for the first time in more than 12 years of polling consider corruption the country's top problem, even more than traditional concerns of public safety and the lack of economic opportunity in the war-torn country.

In another sign of how corruption is dominating voters' sentiment, the government's independent comptroller general on Monday launched a probe of more than 30 high-ranking officials, including the current defense and finance ministers, for alleged negligence and mismanagement in the expansion of a state-owned oil refinery. The project at the Reficar refinery was originally budgeted at $3.5 billion but ended up costing almost triple that amount, with cost overruns that exceed the $5 billion price tag of the recent Panama Canal expansion.

Santos on Tuesday repeated his claim that Odebrecht, one of the biggest state contractors in Colombia over the past decade, did not receive any special treatment from his government and he called on his aides to assume responsibility for their actions.

"This violation of the campaign rules doesn't presume, nor can it, that corruption took place in my government," he said.

When Odebrecht agreed in December to pay a $3.5 billion fine as part of the biggest foreign bribery case in US history, Colombian authorities responded swiftly, becoming the first in Latin America outside Brazil to arrest former officials accused of taking bribes. As part of the plea agreement with the US Justice Department, Odebrecht acknowledged paying $11 million in corrupt payments to officials in Colombia since 2009.

Santos has cheered on the probe, while asserting he had no role in any wrongdoing.

Odebrecht was awarded only one of the 22 public works projects it bid for during his government, Santos said at a recent rally, leaving the company "begging like dogs at Mass" outside the church door.

"Colombia was penetrated, but this government built a wall they couldn't cross," he said.

Others doubt the president's account and question why the company was awarded without bidding a multi-million-dollar addendum to a major highway contract signed by Santos' predecessor.