Jeers for Spanish union boss facing housing scandal charges

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The Independent Online
FROM THE end of the Franco dictatorship until his retirement in April, the name Nicolas Redondo was synonymous with trade unionism in Spain. The long-time leader of the giant General Workers' Union (UGT) confederation, he represented the old-fashioned union man - tough but fair, stubborn but honest.

Yesterday, Mr Redondo, 67, was booed, jeered with chants of 'Nico, fraudster' and confronted with placards comparing him with the fictional Mafia godfather, Don Corleone, as he appeared before a High Court judge in connection with a UGT-run housing co-operative scandal. Hundreds of loyal trade unionists, chanting his name, joined police to form a human shield for him as he entered the court to answer questions from Spain's special financial crimes judge, Miguel Moreiras.

Mr Redondo, who resembles the old Hollywood actor George Raft, was called in as an inculpado (accused), rather than as a witness, after legal action by thousands of workers who were promised, and paid for, cheap housing which most never received.

Some 21,000 workers took up the offer after the UGT set up a co- operative in 1988 known as Social Housing Promotion (PSV). They each paid between 5m and 10m pesetas ( pounds 25,000- pounds 50,000) but only 1,000 or so had moved into their homes when the co-operative went bankrupt earlier this year. The wives of many of those who have received nothing were among those heckling Mr Redondo outside the court.

Judge Moreiras has so far jailed two managers of the scheme, ruling there was enough evidence to hold them on charges of fraud, misappropriation of funds and falsification of documents. Mr Redondo answered the judge's questions for three hours, while police separated his supporters and opponents outside. His lawyer said he had denied all knowledge of the UGT's finances but had been asked to return for further questioning today.

After a string of corruption scandals involving the ruling Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE), it was not entirely coincidental that the nation's attention was diverted towards the union housing scandal, and whether the judge would jail Mr Redondo pending trial on the same charges as the two other officials already held.

The Socialist Prime Minister, Felipe Gonzalez, once Mr Redondo's protege during their underground opposition to Franco, was widely perceived as abandoning the old union boss to his fate, and even of helping the scandal to surface after their friendship and co- operation turned ever-more sour. The scandal has given Mr Gonzalez a rare breathing space from the corruption cases that have brought down several ministers and close aides and are making it increasingly difficult for the Prime Minister to claim he knew nothing of what was going on.

Jailed several times under Franco, Mr Redondo renounced the leadership of the then still-underground PSOE in 1974 in favour of the young Seville lawyer who went on to sweep to power in 1982 and is now in his fourth consecutive term as premier. As Mr Gonzalez moved right, however, notably with his 180-degree turn on Nato membership in the mid- Eighties, Mr Redondo gradually turned against him, sparking a PSOE-unions rift that is now deeper than ever.