Another Portuguese government member quits in latest hiring scandal

FILE PHOTO: EU leaders meet in Brussels

By Catarina Demony

LISBON (Reuters) -A newly appointed senior Portuguese government official quit on Thursday in a fresh embarrassment for the Socialist administration that is facing tough criticism over its vetting procedures following a wave of scandals and resignations.

The Socialists, led by Prime Minister Antonio Costa, won an outright parliamentary majority in an election a year ago but the government has had a bumpy ride since then, with 11 ministers and secretaries of state leaving their roles, some over allegations of past misconduct or questionable practices.

In the latest instance, the Correio da Manha newspaper reported on Thursday that Carla Pereira, who took over the role of secretary of state for agriculture only on Wednesday, allegedly had had bank accounts seized due to a corruption investigation into her husband, a former mayor.

Several opposition parties demanded that she be fired. Her husband, Americo Pereira, said that only he was being investigated and not his wife.

The Agriculture Ministry, which initially said it saw no reasons for her to leave her job as she had not been accused of any crime, said in a statement later she had submitted her resignation, which was promptly accepted.

Pereira was not available for comment.

In late December, Infrastructure Minister Pedro Nuno Santos quit following a public backlash over hefty severance pay received by a new Treasury secretary from state-owned airline TAP, which fell under the minister's remit. The secretary also resigned.

In November, Costa's right-hand man, Miguel Alves, stepped down after being formally accused by public prosecutors of malfeasance during his time as a mayor in 2015-16. Alves has denied wrongdoing.

"We say no to incompetence and instability ... We need a new government and we need it now," Joao Contrim, leader of the small but vocal Liberal Initiative party, told parliament, calling on lawmakers to support a motion of no-confidence, which ended up being rejected.

Catarina Martins, head of the Left Bloc, said there were too many questionable appointments, adding that "for each case closed, a new case opens".

Responding to the criticism, Costa told parliament he would propose to the president a new vetting system for the period between nominations and actual appointments of government officials to "ensure greater transparency and trust."

Still, he largely played down the issue, saying that what really mattered to the Portuguese was not the government's line-up but his administration's results, such as solid economic growth, lower unemployment and lower public debt.

(Reporting by Catarina Demony in LisbonAdditional reporting by Patricia Rua in LisbonEditing by Andrei Khalip, Frances Kerry and Matthew Lewis)