The formula for hiring through the emergency route, which should be exceptional, has made possible the response to the health crisis in the Community of Madrid: Ifema, Zendal, China’s planes, pizzas for underprivileged children, mass tests , tracers or vaccines.
From March of last year to January of this year, the regional government has hand-awarded 4,196 contracts worth 816 million euros, about 5% of its annual budget, according to the calculation that EL PAÍS has made from the available information on the website of the autonomous government, which is incomplete.
It is a figure that has never been reached before with contracts of this type, since they are reserved for a rapid response to catastrophes such as fires, floods or gas explosions. The head of transparency in the regional government has avoided commenting on the figure.
Madrid is no exception. Much of the management of the pandemic in Spain has behind billions of euros handpicked. The Ministry of Finance stopped updating the data of the autonomies and the central government in June, when they already added 11,177 in all of Spain.
These are called emergency contracts, processed by an express procedure that allows you to order something (a service, a work, a supply) directly from a company without the need for public tenders. Through this fast track, medical supplies or equipment have been bought or companies have been used to carry out tests or clean hospitals.
Turning these abnormal contracts into daily practice has a cost: public procurement is the number one risk of corruption for governments, as the European Commission, the OECD and the UN coincide in pointing out. This period of maximum flexibility to contract, which already lasts almost a year, has no recent precedent in the Spanish rule of law.
As it is a propitious moment for illicit enrichment, international associations and organizations that fight against corruption published alerts at the beginning of the pandemic, which recommended transparency and audits , precautions that have not been sufficiently addressed.
“The covid-19 outbreak increases the risks of corruption,” the Council of Europe’s Group of States Against Corruption warned in April. “The health sector is particularly exposed by the immediate need for medical supplies (and therefore the simplification of contract rules), the overcrowding of medical facilities and the overload suffered by health workers.”
The 4,196 emergency contracts that are the object of this analysis are those published by the Community of Madrid on its web platform, the Public Procurement Portal [at the end of this news item, you can download the contract data].
They are not all: the Government of Isabel Díaz Ayuso has not yet published many, such as the planes that arrived from China , and therefore the total number of awards is not known. A spokeswoman for Ignacio Aguado, vice president and counselor of Transparency, has not responded to a question from this newspaper about how many contracts for the covid emergency the Community has signed.
The Ministry of Health, the most directly involved in the pandemic, is responsible for 87% of the amounts awarded (705 million euros). It is followed by Education (57 million), which ordered new digital materials for its online education platform ; Presidency (15.8 million), with contracts awarded in their entirety to digitize the Administration; and Social Policies, with 15.1 million euros.
For Health, the emergency contracts related to covid-19 have meant more than all the awards that this body makes public in a normal year. Its largest contractors are large hospital management companies (such as Madrid’s Palex Medical, 26 million euros), pharmaceuticals (such as the American multinational Abott, 23 million in antigen testing) or services (such as the Spanish infrastructure and services multinational Ferrovial , 17 million).
The detailed analysis of the contracts provides an idea of the impact of the pandemic on Madrid’s public coffers. Buying masks and gloves (along with other protective materials) cost 62.3 million euros. Respirators and related equipment accounted for about 8.9 million.
Acquire critical care beds, at least 2.6 million euros, to which must be added works such as the expansion of the intensive care area of the Hospital Gregorio Marañón: an emergency contract for 1.6 million euros, awarded to Constructora San José.
The Community of Madrid has on several occasions hired companies to provide services, outsourcing or “privatization” that have been highly criticized by defenders of public health. Outsourcing the test to detect covid-19 involved 24.5 million only in emergency contracts to organize the tests and analyze results.
The companies that benefited the most were, by far, the Valencian Ribera Salud (18.5 million, part of them in a Temporary Union of Companies with Unilabs), followed by Analiza laboratories (1.7 million).
The regional government also outsourced the citizen service switchboards (one of the contracts is literally justified by the “overflow of call attention”), awarding three million in contracts. The chosen ones were Konecta, Indra and Telefónica.
To support the vaccination campaign, the Community chose the Red Cross (889,000 euros). In the worst of the first wave, the Ministry of Social Policies also resorted to the Vitalia group of residences to accommodate elderly people who needed it due to the spread of the virus in other centers (550,000 euros).
This form of contracting has also been key in the management of the field hospital installed at the Ifema fairgrounds . From beds to wall clocks and lockers, through laundries or assembly, the center cost 21.63 million euros in emergency awards to companies.
Restoration and cleaning were the largest contracts: respectively, four million for Eurest, the Spanish brand of the British multinational catering company Compass, and 3.9 for Clece,division of the construction company ACS specialized in hospital cleaning. The material contracts for Ifema actually amount to 86 million euros, but the vast majority went to Hall 10, which served as a sanitary warehouse for the region.
The route of hand- picked adjudication for the emergency has also been used to set up the so-called “ pandemic hospital ” Nurse Isabel Zendal . The bill amounts to more than 135 million euros, as reported by Cadena SER, citing sources from the regional government, but the web portal only appeared in mid-January contracts worth 61 million euros.
Only works accounted for 48 million in emergency contracts that have been signed with 14 companies, including large construction companies such as Sacyr, Dragados and Ferrovial.
Spanish law has been hardening the requirements that governments must meet when contracting for more than three decades, in order to avoid corruption and guarantee the efficient use of public money. But the slowness of ordinary contracts, which require competition between bidding companies, can make the difference between life and death in the midst of disasters, hence the emergency procedure allows free contracting.
The problem is that the opposition and the jurists consulted feel that the rulers have taken these contracts as a carte blanche. In the case of Madrid contracts, on numerous occasions the 15-day deadline for publishing them is breached, once formalized, on the regional contracting portal.
It occurs with contracts strictly linked to the management of the worst days of the pandemic, such as the nearly three million euros awarded to buy protection material on April 8. The contract was made public on October 29.
There are others that have not even appeared, such as the planes that brought medical supplies from China in the spring. As the Infolibre newspaper learned through a formal request for transparency, the freight alone cost 19,480,397 euros. At other times, the justification for why a service is requested from one company and not another is unconvincing. Occurred with an awardthe private healthcare giant Chiron, who was hired to track down even though he didn’t have enough employees.
Or with the brief answers that the government itself has given to explain some decisions. There has also been criticism because the Community publishes contracts that lack a detailed breakdown of the purchase. For example, they indicate the cost in euros of the masks, but do not specify the number of units purchased.
The Madrid recruitment portal is an incomplete and unpredictable information tool because the publication of contracts is arbitrary. “It is unpresentable that these contracts are not yet published. It is public money and we still do not know the trace that it has followed, ”criticizes the regional PSOE deputy Carmen López.
The OECD, the UN, the Council of Europe or the IMF have recommended transparency and ex post audits . Spain has several administrative bodies for the supervision of public contracts, but its resources are scarce and they do not carry out an ex officio or exhaustive control.
The Independent Office for Regulation and Supervision, OIReScon, which started operations in 2019 as required by European directives, has caused disappointment. It was expected of her that she would admit complaints of irregularities and that she would have the capacity to sanction, but this has not been the case.
He only has five workers and the lack of computer resources prevents him from doing his homework. During the first four months of the pandemic, that office analyzed weekly whether communities and the central government published their emergency contracts, but abandoned this task in June, when its president, María José Santiago , left office .
Until June 21,11,177 emergency contracts had been published in Spain for a value of 2,140 million euros. Since then, these data have not been updated.
A problem with the control of these finger contracts is that there is no popular action to denounce them. “The surveillance of public contracts in Spain has always been based on the competition suing when they are angry about the result of a contest,” says Eva Belmonte, co-director of the Fundación protransparencia Civio . “Hope now is above all a media and political control.”
The good news is that the Court of Auditors announced at the beginning of January that it has included in its program of audits for this year a review of the emergency contracts made in 2020. In Madrid, the PSOE has requested the celebration in the Assembly of a full monographic on the contracts signed during the pandemic.
Madrid is one of the autonomous regions that still does not have an anti-fraud office or mechanisms to protect whistleblowers of corruption, although a law to protect the latter is already being processed .
Some experts think that due to the imperfections of the Spanish system it is inevitable that corruption has occurred during this exceptional period. “That any official or politician has lost the lottery with the pandemic? Sure ”, says the lawyer specialized in public contracts based in A Coruña, Juan Carlos Romar. “There will be everything”.