Mayor of big Venezuelan city arrested in corruption probe

Reuters

By Daniel Wallis and Diego Ore

CARACAS, Oct 13 (Reuters) - State security agents havearrested the mayor of Venezuela's third-largest city for allegedcorruption after President Nicolas Maduro asked lawmakers togrant him decree powers he says he needs to fight graft.

Valencia mayor Edgardo Parra, a member of the rulingSocialist Party, was picked up at his home late on Saturday bythe national intelligence agency Sebin, the attorney general'soffice said. It was the most high profile arrest so far in thepresident's anti-corruption campaign.

Venezuela's opposition says Maduro's request last week forfast-track powers is aimed at targeting them under the guise ofbattling graft. The government denies this, and says Parra'sarrest proves it will go after corruption wherever it exists.

"We will not protect anyone who commits a crime involvingpublic funds, which are sacred because it's the people's money.There are no untouchables here," said Francisco Ameliach, thegovernor of Carabobo state and another member of the rulingparty, told state media.

Valencia, a city of about two million people, is the capitalof Carabobo. A statement from the attorney-general's office saidSebin agents had found "criminal items of interest" during theraid to arrest the mayor.

It said two other people were detained and accused ofrunning "a sort of parallel office" that managed more than adozen cooperatives and companies with the mayor's office.

The move against Parra came as the National Assembly isexpected to approve Maduro's request he be given decree powersfor 12 months in a process last used during the 14-year rule ofhis predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez.

Maduro says fast-track decree powers are essential so he canstep up an anti-graft campaign which has included the arrest ofthe boss of a big state mining firm, and uncovered the theft of$84 million from a fund partially financed by China.

'POLITICAL PANTOMIME'

Most of the 278 people who the government says have beenrounded up so far are less well-connected, prompting critics tocomplain that Maduro is ignoring graft closer to home.

Meanwhile, opponents accuse the government of breaking anti-graft laws by failing to publish how it spends tens ofbillions of dollars in oil revenue.

This lack of disclosure makes it hard for investors,including those who hold Venezuela's widely traded bonds, tomeasure state spending.

On Sunday, opposition leader Henrique Capriles called the"shameful" debate over decree powers a "political pantomime,"the only aim of which was to win more power for the president.

"How dare you tell us you'll fight corruption, when thepeople guilty of stealing public funds are exactly the same onesyou chose to govern with you?" he wrote in his weekly column.

Critics fear the president could use decree powers to pushthrough laws that have nothing to do with fighting corruption.

Graft has been a problem in Venezuela for decades. By the1990s, it had generated so much outrage among voters it helpedsweep Chavez and his self-styled revolution into office.

Chavez passed nearly 200 laws by decree during his rule.

Maduro, who largely blames corruption on the opposition andprivate companies, denies there is any immunity. He repeatedlysays he is the victim of U.S.-backed plot to unseat him thatranges from "economic war" to sabotage and assassination plots.

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