Human Capital Ministry faces judicial double blow

A court unanimously rejected the ministry’s appeal against delivering food to soup kitchens while a federal prosecutor opened an investigation into alleged embezzlement

Argentine Education Secretary Carlos Torrendell and Minister of Human Capital Sandra Pettovello attend a ceremony, to pay homage to the victims of the 1992 Israeli embassy bombing, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, March 18, 2024. REUTERS/Agustin Marcarian

Argentina’s Human Capital Ministry was given 24 hours to present a plan for delivering food sitting in government warehouses on Wednesday by Buenos Aires City’s Federal Court. On the same day, federal prosecutor Ramiro González opened a separate investigation into an alleged embezzlement scheme in the ministry, with irregular employment contracts signed through the Ibero-American States Organization (OEI, by its Spanish acronym).

Two weeks ago, the news website El Destape published that 5,000 tonnes of food were sitting in two government warehouses. Social leader Juan Grabois filed a complaint against Human Capital Minister Sandra Pettovello in February for not delivering food to soup kitchens and, in May, requested an ocular inspection of the warehouses.

On May 24, prosecutors Andrés Nazer and María Paloma Ochoa gave a five-day deadline for the ministry to deliver the food to the registered soup kitchens and demanded precise information on the stash in a ruling signed by Casanello. The ministry appealed days later.

However, on Wednesday, the city’s federal court’s judges Martín Irurzun, Eduardo Guillermo Farah, and Roberto José Boico unanimously rejected the ministry’s arguments for the appeal in a 38-page ruling. The ministry claimed that Casanello’s order to hand over the food to food kitchens would “imply an interference of the Judicial Branch in the sphere of action of the National Executive Branch” and would be ineffective as the warehouses mainly contained “yerba mate.”

However, Irurzun said that the government’s food security policies were not under discussion, “but rather, plain and simple, whether there was an unlawful action by public officials that further aggravated the catastrophic situation of an important group of people who do not have their basic human rights covered.”

Farah noted that an ocular inspection revealed that “a very high percentage of the stored foodstuff is other products [than yerba mate, as the government claimed] whose usefulness for the needy sectors is undeniable.” Some of those products include sunflower oil, lentils, chickpeas, powdered milk, tomato puree, peanut butter, flour, and rice.

Farah also said that during a legal audience on Tuesday, Grabois and the ministry’s legal secretary Leila Gianni were a “sorry spectacle” as they screamed at each other and “did not fully explain the factual and legal reasons that supported their respective positions in the case.” The court also recommended the Public Bar Association and the Human Capital Ministry evaluate Grabois and Gianni’s behavior.

The ministry has been quarreling with social movements such as the Movimiento de Trabajadores Excluidos, led by Grabois, accusing them of corruption. Most soup kitchens in the country are managed by people in social movements and the government’s decision to stop delivering food is politically motivated, with Presidential Spokesman Manuel Adorni referring to them as “managers of poverty.”

“We won the appeal. Life gives you surprises. Say whatever you want, Pettovello, but you have 24 hours: distribute the food,” Grabois posted on X. He also “welcomed” his potential sanction as “there is no battle without wounds.” Grabois also claimed that at least one civilian acting as Gianni’s security during the hearing was armed, something he said is “strictly forbidden.”

Last week, the ministry announced that the Army would distribute the food together with the CONIN foundation, an institution founded by pediatrician Abel Albino, who in 2018 famously said that condoms are not a good protection against HIV as “the virus can go through porcelain.”

However, the warehouse scandal is not the only legal ordeal the Human Capital Ministry is facing. Federal prosecutor Ramiro González opened a criminal case to investigate the allegedly illegal hiring of personnel through the OEI. The ministry itself filed that complaint against its former Childhood, Adolescence, and Family Secretary Pablo De la Torre.

According to Gianni’s complaint, the ministry hired apparent independent consultants through the OEI who “withdrew the money from their accounts, exchanged it for U.S. dollars, and gave it to the officials, who distributed it to workers not included on the current payroll and others to low-paid employees.”

“The remaining dollar amounts were given to Pablo De la Torre to pay the salaries of personnel who were never appointed,” González wrote.

González demanded certified copies of the agreements between the Human Capital Ministry and the OEI, a complete list of the ministry’s employees, and the documents of the ministry’s internal investigations. González also called the ministry’s administrative undersecretary Alejandro Schiavi and a legal representative for the OEI to give testimony.

The government has consistently shown support for Pettovello, with President Javier Milei appearing unannounced in Adorni’s daily press conference on Tuesday and saying that “Kirchnerists” are the corrupt ones. “She is the best minister in history,” he said.


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