VP's corruption case tests Argentina's courts

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) Argentina's vice president spent more than seven hours in a judge's chambers Monday, finally answering questions in a criminal corruption investigation that has challenged the decade-old government like never before.

Amado Boudou is accused of using shell companies and secret middlemen to gain control of the company that was given contracts to print the nation's currency and campaign material for the ticket he shared with President Cristina Fernandez.

Boudou has always denied involvement despite ample evidence linking him to other defendants that was made public through investigative reports by Argentina's newspapers.

The government tried to use its influence in the judiciary to derail the case. The original prosecutor and judge were removed, and an attorney general who approved a search warrant for Boudou's apartment was forced to resign.

But federal judge Ariel Lijo ordered Boudou to answer questions in a closed-door court session. It's the first time since Argentina restored democracy in 1983 that a sitting vice president has been ordered to answer criminal allegations.

"I'm going to tell the truth. I'm going to respond the questions and clarify them," Boudou told reporters as he left his luxury apartment in the Puerto Madero district. On the courthouse steps, he waved his fingers in a "V'' for victory sign and blew a kiss to a flag-waving crowd of government supporters.

Television cameras showed that several people shouted "thief, thief" at the vice president inside.

Boudou tried twice to get his testimony broadcast live, saying he wanted to clear his name and didn't trust the judge.

The judge said that would violate investigative secrecy laws aimed at preventing later witnesses from changing their stories to fit what a defendant says. He also said all citizens are equal under Argentina's constitution, which "makes no exceptions for royalty."

Boudou's lawyers then told the judge they would make their own video recording and bring in their own stenographer to make a rival transcript. But the judge had nothing of it, turning away the vice president's cameraman and stenographer and rejecting a defense motion for a delay.

As the day wore on with no news from inside the chamber, Boudou's supporters outside dismantled a stage with a huge TV screen, leaving only a gaggle of cameramen at the courthouse steps.

Many Argentines have questioned why Fernandez has remained loyal to her No. 2 when allegations have made him Argentina's least popular politician, opponents are threatening to impeach him and some allies said he should resign. His falling fortunes have left the government without a clear presidential successor ahead of the 2015 elections.

"This is the most vulnerable moment yet for her because it's the beginning of the end of her era," said political analyst Ignacio Fidanza of the website politicaonline. "She supports him because she knows that if she fires Boudou, she'll be exposed. The front pages now focused on him will be dedicated to her. And they'll say: How much of this had her approval?"

The judge also plans to question other defendants and witnesses this week before deciding whether to formally charge the vice president or dismiss the case. A conviction on the charges facing Boudou could carry a penalty of one to six years in prison and a lifetime ban from public office.

He is accused of acting as economy minister and then vice president to smooth the Ciccone Calcografica printing company's exit from bankruptcy and engineer its purchase by a shell company so he and other secret partners could benefit from unusual tax exemptions and lucrative government contracts.

The shell company, The Old Fund, was led by businessman Alejandro Vandenbroele, who is accused of secretly representing Boudou in business deals. The scandal broke open after Vandenbroele's former wife exposed the alleged arrangement, saying she had to give media interviews because her life was being threatened for what she knew.

Others ordered to testify include longtime Boudou friend and business partner Jose Maria Nunez Carmona; Vandenbroele; former tax agency official Rafael Resnick Brenner; printing company co-founder Nicolas Ciccone; and his son-in-law Guillermo Reinwick.

The Ciccones have said Boudou was personally involved in the negotiations that persuaded them to sell 70 percent of the family company to The Old Fund.

Boudou has denied participating in the meetings. He has said he wasn't involved with The Old Fund, even though documents published by the newspaper La Nacion show the company paid his girlfriend's travel company for vacations taken by his friends and relatives.

Boudou also said he didn't know Vandenbroele, but the businessman's name was on bills at one of Boudou's apartments, according to copies published by La Nacion.

Boudou has not denied signing a decree as economy minister that effectively erased the printer's debts by enabling the new owners to pay back taxes over many years at below-market interest rates.

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Associated Press writer Almudena Calatrava contributed to this report.