Accused businessman in Guatemala customs scam incriminates Perez

GUATEMALA CITY - A Guatemalan businessman accused of participating in a customs fraud that brought down the country's president told a court on Monday that half the bribes in the scam were paid to the former leader and his ex vice president.

Salvador Estuardo Gonzalez told the court he acted as an accountant in the scam known as "La Linea" that sparked the arrest of ex-President Otto Perez and his former deputy Roxana Baldetti, both of whom are now in prison awaiting trial.

Gonzalez, who was arrested in June, is the first of the suspects in the case to corroborate accusations made by Guatemala's attorney general against Perez, who has denied involvement in the multimillion dollar scandal.

Prosecutors sought and obtained the impeachment of Perez after months of investigations into La Linea, which included taped phone calls that identified the president and Baldetti under the code names of No. 1 and No. 2 respectively.

According to investigators' findings, Perez and Baldetti profited from a scheme in which importers paid bribes to avoid customs duties, allegations which Gonzalez backed up. "I was the one who identified as 1 and 2 the president and the vice president in order to distribute the money," Gonzalez said. "50 percent of the bribes were for 1 and 2." Like Perez, who resigned and was arrested earlier this month, Baldetti has denied any wrongdoing.

Perez's lawyer Moises Galindo asked the court to throw out Gonzalez's testimony on the grounds that Perez was not present. He did not specifically reject the allegations.

Perez, a retired general, and Baldetti have been charged with criminal association, taking bribes and customs fraud.

Gonzalez was one of 28 suspects arrested in June over La Linea, and investigators say he was one of its key operators.

By then the scandal had forced Baldetti to resign, and she was arrested in August. Perez's arrest followed early this month after Congress stripped him of his presidential immunity.

The president's downfall came just days before the first round of voting in an election to choose his successor. A second round run-off in the presidential election is on Oct. 25.