Mayor of big Venezuelan city arrested in corruption probe

Reuters

By Daniel Wallis and Diego Ore

CARACAS (Reuters) - State security agents have arrested the mayor of Venezuela's third-largest city for alleged corruption after President Nicolas Maduro asked lawmakers to grant him decree powers he says he needs to fight graft.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maduro says fast-track decree powers are essential so he can step up an anti-graft campaign which has included the arrest of the 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 been rounded up so far are less well-connected, prompting critics to complain 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 of billions of dollars in oil revenue.

This lack of disclosure makes it hard for investors, including those who hold Venezuela's widely traded bonds, to measure 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 the people guilty of stealing public funds are exactly the same ones you chose to govern with you?" he wrote in his weekly column.

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

Graft has been a problem in Venezuela for decades. By the 1990s, it had generated so much outrage among voters it helped sweep 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 and private companies, denies there is any immunity. He repeatedly says he is the victim of U.S.-backed plot to unseat him that ranges from "economic war" to sabotage and assassination plots.

(Reporting by Daniel Wallis and Diego Ore; Editing by David Brunnstrom)

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