English

Excerpt from the book
Whistleblowing for Change
Exposing Systems of Power & Injustice
Editor: Tatiana Bazzichelli, Disruption Network Lab – Transcript Verlag edition
https://www.disruptionlab.org/book

IMPROVING DEMOCRACY THROUGH DIGITAL WHISTLEBLOWING

OPEN-SOURCE DEVICE FOR JAILING POLITICIANS

This text is an adaptation of Shreya Tewari and Nani Jansen Reventlow’s interview for the Catalysts for Collaboration project (1) on the group, 15MPARATO.

    “One of the biggest strengths of our campaign was that it was not centred around a single person. It was built as a citizen’s device where the victory would also belong to the people.”
    A member of 15MPARATO

 

Background

In one of Spain’s most high-profile cases, a group of activists successfully sent Rodrigo Rato, the ex-Minister of Economy, former President of Bankia and potential Prime Minister of Spain, to jail for corruption. Alongside him, 64 bankers and politicians were sentenced to varying terms: 14 of them imprisonment.

The convictions were the result of a lawsuit filed by an anonymous collective called 15MPARATO against the executives of Caja Madrid, Spain’s oldest savings bank, which later merged with six other savings banks to form Bankia.

During the proceedings, popularly known as the ‘Bankia Case’, evidence surfaced as a result of collaborative digital tools created for 15MPARATO by the activist platform Xnet.3 Most crucial of these were over 8,000 emails from the ex-chairman of Caja Madrid, Miguel Blesa, which shed light on malpractice and tax evasion by bankers and politicians amounting to over 15.5 million euros. As a result, in 2017, Spain’s High Court found Rato and 64 other executives guilty. They were all members of various political parties and unions, from the conservative Partido Popular to which Rato belonged; to the social democractic Partido Social-ista; to Izquierda Unida, the left-wing party now merged with Podemos; and the two main “left” unions. But this was not all: with the evidence that 15MPARATO brought to the case, unprecedentedly, the small savers who had been forced to invest were all able to recover the money they had lost in the scam: over 2 billion euros.

     

    Formation of 15MPARATO

    Spain was heavily hit by the financial crisis in 2008 which led to a recession, mass unemployment and the collapse of Spain’s property market. The effects of this cri-sis were felt for many years, with large companies facing bankruptcy, and unemployment reaching a record rate of 32%. The devastating effects of the financial crisis led to massive protests in 2011. These protests were first staged on May 15 and later came to be known as the 15M or the Indignados movement. This movement saw Spaniards assembling in towns and city squares across Spain to display their distrust in the government and its handling of the financial crisis.

    15MPARATO was created in May 2012, on the one-year anniversary of 15M. The group was driven by Xnet (2), a non-profit activist organisation active in the field of democracy in the digital era. Its objective was to put an end to economic and political impunity and corruption. The Bankia case was chosen because it summarized the key ingredients of unfair governance: all parties involved, revolving doors between the public and private sector, lack of transparency, privileges and a large part of the population affected.

    15MPARATO was a witty wordplay, with 15M standing for the Indignados movement, and Rato holding the dual meaning of Rato, the last name of Rodrigo Rato, also translating as “for a while” in Spanish. The name made both intentions of the campaign clear: that the 15M movement was coming for Rato and others like him, and that the 15M movement would continue to question the establishment for a long while.

    Facts Leading up to the Lawsuit
    In 2010, Rodrigo Rato joined Caja Madrid as its chairman. Prior to this, he held other high-level positions, including Director of the International Monetary Fund, Minister of Economy, and Vice President of one of Spain’s major political parties, the People’s Party. The latter had set him up as a potential Prime Minister of Spain. At Caja Madrid, he succeeded Miquel Blesa, who had held the position for 13 years.

Shortly after Rato joined, Caja Madrid became the largest of seven regional banks that consolidated to form ‘Bankia’, and he became the President of Bankia. In 2011, Bankia listed itself on the stock exchange and carried out an Initial Public Offering (IPO). The advertisement to sell shares targeted the poor and middle class, offering shares for only 1,000 euros. Over 300,000 small saver shareholders invested in Bankia for 3.75 euros per share and, consequently, the conglomerate raised 3.2 billion euros.

    In May 2012, Rato announced that Bankia had recorded profits upward of 300 million euros. Shortly after making this claim, Rato resigned from his post amid rumours regarding Bankia’s insolvency and, in June 2012, José Ignacio Gorigolzarri took over as the new President of Bankia.

    In November 2012, within seven months of Rato’s profit rates announcement, Bankia announced that it was suffering a loss of 14 billion euros and was in urgent need of a bail-out. Share prices crashed to an all-time low of 0.01 euros. Bankia was considered key to the nation’s banking sector since it was the fourth-largest bank in Spain and held ten percent of Spanish citizens’ total bank deposits. To avoid a collapse of the entire banking sector, the government stepped in and bailed out Bankia by partially nationalising it. The 19 billion euros raised for this was part of a larger debt that Spain had acquired from the European Union.

Xnet analysed the first bailout plan and realised that half of the amount was being used to rescue Bankia, a bank that was claiming profits of over 300 million euros only seven months before. As collateral damage, Bankia’s 300,000 share-holders—mostly unemployed, elderly and families—had collectively lost over two billion euros due to Bankia’s sudden downfall. It was clear to the activists that the bailout from the government and the steep fall of the share prices were extremely implausible and needed an audit. This led to the formation of 15MPARATO and the launching of the lawsuit.

Even though the campaign was not against one banker specifically, Rato represented a modus operandi that occurs repeatedly in Spanish politics: a potential Prime Minister who, after holding the position of Minister of Economy and then Director of the International Monetary Fund during the crisis, became a private banker with executives from across the political spectrum. The positions he held in government and the banking sector over the past decades clearly symbolised the revolving door culture of the establishment.

In May 2012, 15MPARATO launched a campaign seeking people who had lost their money in the Bankia crash, and also for individuals with any information that might help them to hold Rato to account. Within two weeks, they had found 44 people wanting to hold Rato liable for financial fraud. The collection of evidence began. In order to enable secure and anonymous evidence gathering, Xnet created a digital tool in 2013, called Xnet Leaks. The tool was inspired by WikiLeaks, where any citizen could anonymously submit information about systemic corruption. Later on, it was improved by installing the GlobaLeaks system.

    The next obstacle was to overcome the financial burden of initiating the case. 15MPARATO saw this as an opportunity to host the first political crowdfunding campaign in Spain: over 11,000 people tried to donate money within the first hour of the platform going live, leading to a system shutdown. 130% of the 15,000 euros required was gathered in less than a day.

    This is how journalist Pau Llop reported the digital fundraising on the day of the crowdfunding:

      […] thousands of tweets since 9 o’clock this morning refer to a crowdfunding campaign that is destined to mark a before and after, not only in the history of this type of economic collectivism, but also, if it goes well, in Spanish judicial history. At the time of writing, 357 Spaniards have already raised 7,345 euros to sue Rodrigo Rato and the entire Board of Directors of Bankia, the fourth largest financial institution in the country. And in just four hours. At 1,800 euros per hour. And despite the fact that Goteo.org, the website hosting the collection of the money, has been down for a good part of this morning, without service, due to the saturation caused by thousands of people trying to get information and donate.
      A member of this website tells us that this campaign had received 11,500 visits in
      the first hour (9-10 a.m.) when the usual was until then 7,800 in 24 hours. Nobody
      remembers a campaign with a similar start […]. “This is an action by all for all”, ex-plains a spokeswoman for 15MPARATO, the group behind this unusual and already successful initiative.
      Looking at the wall of donors, there are dozens of donations of 5, 10, 15 and 20 euros. But there are also people who have already donated 500 in one go… This has only just begun. From now on, crowdfunding is no longer just for projects that are difficult to fit into the traditional mass market. In the time it has taken to write this post, 1,000 euros more have been raised to force the justice system to investigate something that neither the government, nor the current board of Bankia want to be investigated. The people accuse. And pay.(3)

    After years of financial abuse and humiliation, 15MPARATO provided a way for the population to regain some dignity. The initiative was so popular that the mass media were forced to announce that a group of unidentifiable “freaks” had collected enough evidence and money to sue the potential prime minister.

    15MPARATO shared spending accounts of the money received on its website. This created trust and transparency between the public and 15MPARATO. It was also a reliable way to refute claims of money-making and other allegations made against them by the press.

In June 2012, 15MPARATO filed a lawsuit in Spain’s High Court against Rato and 32 other bankers on behalf of 14 aggrieved shareholders. This direct action was possible as the Spanish judicial system allows victims to be part of a trial, and 15MPARATO was representing the victims (a group that grew to 44). The main allegations made in the lawsuit related to negligent administration, financial mis-information, fraud and forgery.

Information submitted through Xnet led to some ground-breaking revelations in the Bankia Case, such as the Black Card Scandal and Blesa’s emails, revealing the systematic corruption across the banking and political sectors and eventually leading to two additional lawsuits and the devolution of the money. As 15MPARATO promised from the beginning, “We don’t need any bail out; we simply need our stolen money back.”
 

The Preferred Shares Scam: How We Got the Money Back

Important evidence was leaked to Xnet by Bankia’s own employees. It concerned an internal document about selling a product called “Preferred Shares”. It showed that 98% of shares sold to small savers and families were complex, high-risk shares. It was clear to 15MPARATO that the products were not put on the public market, but were sold only to specific, fragile targets. According to the document, employees were asked to keep shareholders under the false belief that the shares sold to them were fixed-income security shares, a less complex and more secure type of shareholding.

The leaked document encouraged the sale of these shares to small savers and families lacking financial knowledge, with each page of the sales pitch stating: “This information should not be visible to customers.” Based on this evidence, 15MPARATO provided a path for those who had lost money to litigate and claim their money back directly from the bank. Their campaign quipped: “Suing your bank is the best product in the financial market: you get your money back plus 4%”; the percentage added when the litigation was won. The court case grew exponentially as, for the first time, the scammed were winning. It got so big that in 2016 the High Tribunal stated that all the small savers had to be refunded: over 4 billion euros were returned, with a plus of 4%. One of the first goals of 15MPARATO was achieved: people got their money back.
 

The Black Card Scandal

    In December 2013, Xnet received an anonymous submission containing over 8,000 email exchanges from Blesa, the former chairman of Caja Madrid. They included details of how executives of the bank and other influential political figures had access to a Visa Black Credit Card, which was paid off using Bankia’s savings account. Not only were Bankia’s funds being used for personal expenses up to 50,000 euros, but these expenditures were made without the knowledge of the tax agencies. This had led to over 15.5 million euros in tax evasion. Blesa’s emails were representative of Caja Madrid’s administration. Due to the complexity and scale of the Black Card Scandal, the investigating magistrate Judge Andreu opened an adjoining lawsuit against 65 bankers and politicians on charges of embezzlement and tax evasion. Rato and Blesa put up personal property amounting to 19 million euros in their bail.
     

    Outcome

    In February 2017, Spain’s High Court sentenced Rato to four and a half years of imprisonment and Blesa to six years of imprisonment on account of embezzlement in the Black Card Scandal. 63 other bankers and politicians were also sentenced for varying terms, 15 of them to prison. Blesa committed suicide few months after the ruling. Rato appealed the judgment, but the Supreme Court upheld Rato’s conviction. In October 2018, Rato and 13 others began their prison sentences.

    15MPARATO’s initial case, against Bankia executives over the IPO scam and allegations of fraud, forgery and administrative malpractices, remained pending in Spain’s High Court until 2020. By then, many things had changed—including the spirit of the movement, heavily smashed by the cooptation of Podemos, a political party that falsely claimed to represent the Indignados’ Movement. This modified public perceptions of the movement. 15MPARATO was one of the few groups from the Indignados Movement that was not seduced by Unidas Podemos, despite the party trying to infiltrate both the group and the trial several times.

    Another contribution in the changing situation was the COVID-19 pandemic: an exhausted population had little energy to say anything when, in September 2020, the tribunal found the accused not guilty of any malpractice. This was a contradiction of the Spanish High Court statement in 2016, that the information provided by the bankers was “heavily inaccurate”; this is how the system operates.

    The People Did It

From the moment 15MPARATO called upon the public for any information that could potentially imprison Rato, the narrative of the movement was clear: this was a movement by the people and for the people. Now the second case has been lost, they have changed the name of their social network to the hashtag #LaCiudadaniaLoHizo—“the people did it.”

    15MPARATO began with an anonymous message on the internet, reading:

    “We will be catalysts. Countless small, surgical groups to free up living spaces… We are not one, we are not ten, we are not a thousand or a million. We are countless because we are everywhere. The change is unstoppable, the change has already happened… We have the power of the multitude, organised in connected and inexpressible catalysts. If we cannot go for the bank because it is too big to fall, let’s go for the Bankers.”

The internal group remained anonymous for the majority of the campaign, and used only their collective name, 15MPARATO. This was for three reasons. Firstly, they didn’t want the government to identify and obstruct individual members. Secondly, they didn’t want the government to be able to assess the number of people involved in the movement. As a member of 15MPARATO recalled, “We didn’t want the establishment to know whether we were one or one thousand in number.” Since the group comprised of majority female and LGBTQ members, “we couldn’t come out in public because we would perhaps not be taken as seriously as male, hetero, white individuals from the capital.” Some group members did disclose their names, however, to take credit for the movement amid the ongoing trials. Because of this, the whole group eventually shared their names with the press.

The external group, which comprised of the wider population, was created by 15MPARATO using digital tools such as social media platforms and mailing lists. These platforms were created so that Spanish people could interact and engage with the movement. The internet was, and remains, the best place for collaboration; if we wanted to check the accountability of a bank, or if we couldn’t find a certain legal article, we would go on Twitter and ask for help. Hundreds of thousands of citizens were mobilised at different stages of the case for both crowdfunding and evidence gathering.

The Xnet Leaks tool was a by-product of this digital collaboration: an online portal that allowed citizens to anonymously submit evidence against Bankia, which led to breakthroughs such as the leaked Blesa emails. As an activist group, Xnet was concerned about citizens’ privacy and security and decided to set up Xnet Leaks, which was a free and secure channel for anonymous communication. The group didn’t want to know their sources; this was the best way to protect their identities.

    15MPARATO put all relevant evidence of the Bankia case on their website to enable other aggrieved parties to file separate lawsuits. Even today, Xnet Leaks continues to be a platform where evidence of corruption can be submitted. If a person submitting evidence is willing to create a device themselves, Xnet will help.
    Collaboration happens in phases and often activists are only together for a short time; it is difficult to expect people to participate at the same level for a sustained period. Even so, there is much pride in the fact that 12 of the original 20 members who started 15MPARATO continue to work together on similar campaigns. Ultimately, they discovered something that they did not expect; putting dozens of bankers and politicians in the dock is not as difficult as letting the public know that it is within everyone’s reach.

    Furthermore, through gathering first-hand information, they saw that what reached the public was something completely different. For every ten journalists who collaborated with 15MPARATO, there were ten media outlets that ignored the truth. This was obvious when Rato’s wife was one of the responsible of the economic section of El País, a leading national daily newspaper in Spain, but even more painful when other outlets selling themself as “on-the-left” failed to hold truth to power. For every genuinely civic or popular contribution that has helped and supported the movement, a political party has made it sadly clear: “Either you join our ranks and carry our brand, or we wipe you off the map as a potential competitor.”

    That is why the 15MPARATO decided to explain their story themselves with a theatre play, Hazte Banquero (“Become a Banker”), seen by more than 10,000 people in its first few months, and a book, Votar y Cobrar, written and directed by Simona Levi.(4) An important element of 15MPARATO was to prove that the public sector and citizens must collaborate and organise to create a healthy democracy. To quote a line from Hazte Banquero:

    “This is the story of how government elites plundered the county. But it is also the story of how citizens got together and brought to light the truth. And how normal, ordinary people, joining forces, learning and explaining how things really happened, are changing the usual ending.”

 

Notes

1. https://catalystsforcollaboration.org/

2. https://xnet-x.net/en

3. Pau Llop, “#15mpaRato: yo (el pueblo) acuso”, El Diario.es, June 5, 2012,
https://www.eldiario.es/opinion/zona-critica/pueblo-acuso_129_5366734.html

4. Become a Banker, produced by Minoria Absoluta
https://xnet-x.net/en/become-a-banker
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PGZqKRjhf3o

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