It must have been a funny sight when officers found the notes in a wine box and between the pages of books in the room of Chief of Cabinet Vitor Escária. A total of 75,800 euros in cash, there in the office of Prime Minister António Costa’s official residence, the São Bento Palace in Lisbon.
Chief of Staff Escária initially stated that the money was ‘not illegal’ – he had ‘just not declared it yet’ to the tax authorities – and came from work in Angola years ago, but this could no longer avert a scandal. Escária was arrested along with four others on suspicion of corruption.
Prime Minister Costa – who has led Portugal since 2015 and won the elections last year by a landslide – resigned. “The fact that this was seized in an office of someone I put in that place hurts me. It embarrasses me. I must apologize,” Costa said during a press conference.
In addition to Escária, one of Costa’s ministers was also named as a suspect, as was a businessman said to be Costa’s best friend. This close connection with the latter was hastily denied by the Prime Minister. “A prime minister has no friends,” he said. Costa’s actions were also scrutinized because his name appeared in messages intercepted by the police.
What it’s all about is what is also called Portuguese white gold – the extraction of lithium, a substance from which, among other things, batteries for electric cars are made. Portugal appears to have a lot of this raw material near the Spanish border and it appears that a few high-ranking officials have been caught by the gold rush.
They are said to have awarded projects – for a fee – to companies that would extract lithium, but also to have accepted bribes in the tender for a factory for making green hydrogen and a data center that should run on green energy. The fraud investigation was started in 2019, and did not come completely out of the blue: the lithium projects encountered fierce resistance from local residents and environmental activists, who have long warned about the ‘dangerous ties’ between policymakers and mining companies.
All five people arrested have been released. They are no longer suspected of cronyism and corruption, but are still suspected of ‘unlawful influence’ in the allocation of projects. There is also criticism about this: the Public Prosecution Service immediately dropped an ‘atomic bomb’, which meant that the Prime Minister had no choice but to resign and Portugal will have to go to the polls again in March. And that might not have been necessary. But for the time being, the investigations are still in full swing, and the Portuguese experts are falling over each other to analyze everything.