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The BBC's Flora Botsford
"Josef Pique himself says that he is absolutely calm on this matter... that he has no case to answer"
 real 28k

Wednesday, 20 June, 2001, 20:29 GMT 21:29 UK
Spanish minister faces sleaze charge
Josep Pique
The Spanish Government has defended Josep Pique
Prosecutors at the Spanish Supreme Court say they are going to investigate Foreign Minister Josep Pique over alleged financial irregularities.

The investigation relates to the sale of a Spanish oil company, Ertoil, to the French oil giant Elf, 10 years ago.

Mr Pique was a high-ranking executive of Ertoil at the time, before entering politics.

I continue to have the same clear conscience as I have always had. If I wasn't calm I would have left the government a while ago

Josep Pique
The final decision on whether charges are pressed now rests with the attorney-general.

But whatever he decides, the supreme court's vote is an embarrassment for the centre-right government of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, who came to power in 1996 campaigning for higher probity in public life.

A government spokesman said on Wednesday evening that the prime minister was not considering sacking Mr Pique over the allegations.

Mr Pique brushed aside opposition calls for his resignation.

"I continue to have the same clear conscience as I have always had. If I wasn't calm I would have left the government a while ago, I would have asked to be replaced," he said.

Missing money

The supreme court voted by 10-2 in favour of charging Mr Pique on suspicion of misappropriation of funds, tax evasion and fraud.

Jose Maria Aznar
The case is setback for Prime Minister Aznar
The $206m sale to Elf was channelled via a holding company in Luxembourg.

The prosecutor investigating the case says he has been unable to trace where almost half the money, as well as commissions, ended up.

Mr Pique, who was a businessmen before going into politics, was a director of Ertoil.

Spain's Attorney-General Jesus Cardenal is expected to announce his decision on charging Mr Pique by 28 June.

It is the second time in weeks that Elf, now part of TotalFinaElf, has been linked to alleged corruption on the part of a European foreign minister.

In May, France's former Foreign Minister Roland Dumas was jailed for six months for receiving illegal funds from Elf from 1989 to 1992.

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10 May 01 | Europe
Timeline: Spain
05 Mar 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Spain
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