Spanish health minister resigns in kickback scandal

By Elisabeth O'Leary and Sonya Dowsett
Spanish Health Minister Ana Mato reacts at Spanish parliament in Madrid October 29, 2014. REUTERS/Andrea Comas

By Elisabeth O'Leary and Sonya Dowsett

MADRID (Reuters) - Spain's Health Minister Ana Mato resigned on Wednesday after an investigating judge accused her of benefiting from a kickback scheme that has already damaged Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's People's Party (PP).

Mata stood down a day before Rajoy is due to argue for anti-corruption legislation in parliament, seeking to lift flagging support for his party before an election year.

Spain's High Court has charged Mato's former husband, Jesus Sepulveda, of receiving more than 500,000 euros ($625,000) in kickbacks in exchange for public works contracts when he was mayor of a Madrid district and married to Mato.

The health minister, widely ridiculed for her handling of Spain's Ebola crisis earlier this year, protested her innocence in a statement but said she did not want her continued tenure to damage the government or the party.

"The ruling in no way accuses me of any crime," she said. "It signals that I had no knowledge of any crime that could have been committed."

Investigating judge Pablo Ruz planned to ask Mato whether she knew the provenance of gifts received by her family while she was married to Sepulveda, the court ruling said, such as family hotel stays, car rentals, flights, luxury goods and family parties.

Unlike Sepulveda, Mato has not been charged, but Wednesday's court documents named her as a suspected beneficiary of crime.

The PP itself was also named as a suspected beneficiary of the kickback scheme in an earlier stage of Ruz's investigation.

Ruz's investigation has uncovered a web of payments made to PP politicians in return for business contracts, damaging the government's credibility at a time of acute economic hardship for many Spaniards.

The bill Rajoy is due to advocate in parliament includes restrictions on party financing.

Surveys indicate that corruption is the second-biggest concern for the electorate after unemployment, and that disillusionment with the two main political parties has fueled support for a rising leftist newcomer, Podemos ("We Can").

(Additional reporting by Rodrigo de Miguel and Emma Pinedo; Editing by Julien Toyer and Ruth Pitchford)