“This was a surprise,” said Valdemar Alves, ex-president of Pedrogao Grande municipality, accompanied by his wife as they left the Leiria courthouse. (Photo by Paulo Novais/Lusa)
An ex-president and an ex-councilor of Pedrogao Grande municipality were sentenced to seven and six years, respectively, in prison for irregularities in the rebuilding of houses after the June 2017 fire, according to the Expresso (January 31).
Valdemar Alves, the former president, and Bruno Gomes, the former councilor, received sentencing on January 31 from a panel of judges at the Judicial Court of Leiria.
They “promoted the rehabilitation of houses that were identified by the municipality as second homes or non-permanent homes," reported RTP Noticias (January 31).
According to Judge Cristiana Almeida, 14 defendants acted with intent, harming other people who actually needed help to rebuild their homes after the deadliest fire in Portugal's history.
The judicial magistrate said that “it is understood, defendants, community” that “everything is not worth it” to access other people’s funds, considering that with their stance, the defendants “have managed to undermine everyone’s trust in the word solidarity.”
The June 2017 fire destroyed 500 houses, including 261 permanent homes, wrecked 50 businesses, killed 66 and injured 253.
Upon leaving the courthouse, defendant Valdemar Alves commented on the decision.
“This was a surprise,” he told the Expresso. “I have no words for this. It’s (a penalty) too heavy. We were not expecting a decision of this weight.”
The former president said that he will have a conference with his lawyer and that he plans to appeal the decision. Bruno Gomes also said that he will appeal the decision, according to TSF Radio Noticias (January 31).
“It will still be a very long journey,” said Valdemar Alves.
The court also ordered Valdemar Alves and Bruno Gomes to pay, along with 11 other defendants, the civil claims made by the house reconstruction Revita Fund (€109,383.30), the partnership of Uniao das Misericordias Portuguesas and Fundaçao Calouste Gulbenkian (€185,233.33) and by the Portuguese Red Cross (€111,579.01), totaling €406,195.54, according to RTP Noticias.
The government created Revita as a fund to support populations and the revitalization of areas affected by the fires that occurred in June 2017. The fund includes cash and in-kind donations, which may include goods and services.
Bruno Gomes in the forefront of an archived picture (Photo by Nuno Brites/Global Imagens)
Alves and Gomes faced 20 counts of dereliction of political office, 20 counts of document forgery and 20 counts of fraud.
Both were acquitted of some of the crimes. According to RTP Noticias, the Court said:
“The former president was also acquitted of some crimes, having been convicted of 13 crimes of prevarication of a political office holder and of eight crimes of qualified fraud and another two for qualified fraud in the attempted form, which carries a sentence of seven years in prison.
“The panel of judges considered it proven that the former councilor committed 11 crimes of prevarication of political office holders and 13 crimes of qualified fraud, three in the attempted form.
“Given the period in which the defendant Bruno Gomes exercised the functions of councilor and his intervention in the candidacy processes in that capacity, it was considered that, in two of the candidacy processes”, he “had no intervention as councilor.”
The presiding judge justified the acquittal of 14 of the defendants because their “participation in the alleged facts was not proved,” reported SIC Noticias (January 31).
The reading of the judgment began at 10:44 a.m. and lasted just more than one hour, reported RTP Noticias. It was preceded by a statement of the head of the collective court.
In July 2018, half a million euros of donations intended for the reconstruction of primary homes were reportedly diverted to second homes.
“Suspicions fell on cases of people who had changed their fiscal address in order to obtain support from the Revita Fund or other institutions,” reported RTP Noticias.
(A separate Pedrogao Grande fire ongoing trial began on May 24, 2021, with 11 defendants to determine the responsibility for the deaths of 63 and the injuries of 44.)
The house reconstruction trial began on October 26, 2020, in Pombal, but it moved to the larger venue at Leiria to ensure physical distancing in the COVID-19 pandemic. Confinements due to the pandemic also delayed the trial, reported the Expresso, which continued:
“According to information from the Leiria Judicial Court sent to the Lusa news agency, the trial had 26 sessions, 55 witnesses for the prosecution and 38 for the defense testified, and four defendants gave statements. Three certificates were ordered to be extracted due to contradictions with the testimonies given in the investigation phase. The main proceedings now have around 8,150 pages, in addition to nine attachments and 23 appendices.”