SEVILLE, Spain – He leaked files that led to the prosecution of one of the largest labor corruption scandals in Spain's history. But instead of being praised for whistleblowing, he was charged with disclosing work secrets and sentenced to two years in prison.
The leaker, Roberto Macías, filed an appeal this month in a case highlighting the weak protections afforded to whistleblowers in many of the European Union member states – and the bloc's efforts to strengthen it.
More than half of European countries, including Spain, provide little or no national protection for whistleblowers, undermining efforts to fight corruption. But an E.U. The law passed in 2019 requires organizations with more than 50 employees to establish internal channels so that people can report wrongdoing and then act on such information within three months of receipt.
Enforcing it could help the bloc recoup billions of dollars siphoned over through corruption. Weak or nonexistent whistleblower laws waste € 5.8 to € 9.6 billion annually in public procurement spending alone, according to a 2017 study by the European Commission.
Mr Macías is one of the first to test Europe's new commitment to require Member States to protect whistleblowers. In his appeal he argues that the law obliges Spain to protect him rather than punish him. Member States have until December 2021 to pass the new law, but all EU Member States citizens can already press charges against it.
"This case should allow us to see how Europe's political commitment to fighting corruption translates into practice in a country like Spain," said Fruitós Richarte i Travesset, a former Spanish judge who is now a law professor. the Rovira i Virgili University. Mr Richarte i Travesset added that Spain "needs to change not only its legislation but also its mindset, as any advanced society should encourage citizens to expose fraud."
Spanish lawmakers have been debating strengthening the country's anti-corruption laws since 2016, but have been unable to agree on how to do so. The most recent proposal – from the party Ciudadanos – was voted out by Parliament in June.
Left-wing parties argued that the law, which targeted government corruption, did not go far enough in tackling corporate and individual fraud.
Not fighting political fraud and protecting whistleblowers undermines democracy "because if people don't trust their institutions, they don't trust democracy," Edmundo Bal, a Ciudadanos lawmaker, said during the June parliamentary debate on the foiled proposal.
Spain has been haunted in recent years by some major scandals exposed by whistleblowers. While few have been prosecuted, many have complained that they faced exclusion. In 2018, unreliable contracts from a town hall employee led to a lengthy investigation that led to Spain's conservative popular party being found guilty of running a bribe scheme. The employee, Ana Garrido, suffered from what she called "a calvary". including death threats that made her sick due to depression.
Mr Macías, 40, worked for four years as a civil servant for the General Union of Workers, one of Spain's two main trade unions. During that time, he became suspicious that his union was guilty of misconduct, and he downloaded thousands of computer files from his workplace that he thought could prove it.
He was fired in late 2012 as part of a union downsizing. In 2013, a few months after his dismissal, Mr Macías leaked the files to Spanish newspapers, adding to a national scandal involving several officials in the misuse of public money. The money the union received was intended to be spent helping the unemployed, but prosecutors claim the union spent it on unrelated events, including parties. Union officials have denied the charges.
Mr Macías leaked the files anonymously, but a cyber detective revealed his identity and filed a criminal case against him, arguing that under Spanish law to protect workplace confidentiality, he should have lodged a complaint with a court or the police. then hand over files to journalists. That, the union said, had led to "a random media lynching of our organization."
In May, he was sentenced to two years for sharing the information without the consent of his former employer. Prosecution of union officials involved in the scandal has slowed down and five former officials are still awaiting trial.
"My only crime is to reveal a secret kept by my union called corruption, something I didn't even expect to be prosecuted for," Macías, whose sentence has been suspended until his appeal ends, said in a statement. interview.
“My motivation to fight corruption comes from deep in my conscience and my heart,” Macías said. "I worked for a union that pretended to take care of the unemployed while stealing money meant to help them."
The scandal over the misuse of unemployment subsidies has prompted other investigations, including an investigation into whether government officials in Andalusia, Spain's largest region, illegally include their friends and family members of people eligible for severance pay.
Last November, two of Andalusia's former socialist leaders: José Antonio Griñán and Manuel Chaves – were convicted of violating public duty while overseeing unemployment benefits that the court called fraudulent. Both are attractive. Mr. Griñán faces six years in prison.
Since his conviction, Mr Macias has received the support of some politicians and activists. His appeal is being handled by Francisco José Sánchez, a pro bono lawyer who is also the founder of a small civil rights association.
Mr. Macias now has Spanish citizenship, but he was born in Guadalajara and received his law degree in Mexico.
Since 2013, he said, he had mostly relied on unemployment benefits to make ends meet. His unemployment and time spent in court had taken a heavy toll on his family, he said.
“This is the kind of situation where a family can easily fall apart,” he said. "There have certainly been times when my wife wondered why I started a battle that has also endangered the financial future of our children."