Scandal of Spain's corrupt Red Cross batters Gonzalez's standing

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ASSUMING he or she was not particularly obese, some lucky Spaniard may have won his or her weight in gold last night, and possibly quite a bit more. At a ceremony in the hushed confines of the magnificent cathedral in Leon, the Spanish Red Cross drew the winning number in its annual Golden Lottery. The first prize - 100kg, or 220lb of solid gold, worth more than pounds 750,000.

It was not immediately known whether anyone had claimed the 100 ingots, weighing 1kg each, or if the lucky ticket - number 87,986 series 116 - had even been sold. Winners usually opt for anonymity. But there were thousands of lesser prizes, going down to a third of an ounce.

The choice of a cathedral for a lottery draw seems incongruous, even sacrilegious. But Spain's Red Cross, its reputation battered by corruption scandals, perhaps felt the need for divine intervention.

The Spanish Red Cross is one of the world's oldest - this is its 130th year - but it is not a time for celebration. Hours before the draw was made, the secretary-general, Pedro Ramos, was said to have been ousted over corruption allegations. A private radio station, Onda Cero, whose investigations uncovered much of the alleged corruption, said he would be replaced on Friday. The organisation's president, Carmen Mestre, 41, an economist, resigned in May after media reports that the organisation had accumulated debts of around pounds 100m and that she had run up bills of up to pounds 55,000 a year on her favourite seafood meals, using a Gold Visa card issued by and charged to the humanitarian organisation.

The embarrassment does not stop there. Although the Spanish Red Cross is nominally non-governmental, it is hugely subsidised and became largely a fiefdom of the ruling Socialist Party (PSOE).

'Felipe Gonzalez is to blame for turning the Spanish Red Cross into the Socialist Red Cross,' said an opposition conservative MP, Luis Ramallo. The fact that King Juan Carlos is the honorary president added to nationwide unease over the plight of the body.

Ms Mestre, a Socialist militant, was appointed by the then social affairs minister, Matilde Fernandez, in January 1990 and was approved by the Prime Minister, Felipe Gonzalez and his cabinet.

Her predecessor, Leocadio Marin, said recently that he had tried to have the organisation's finances audited when he got the job in 1985, 'but the auditors said it was impossible because of a lack of accounting data'.

Red Cross sources said the debt multiplied after Ms Mestre took over. That left Spaniards wondering about the use of their private contributions, as well as some pounds 6m a year from the Red Cross's 620,000 members and at least pounds 15m a year in subsidies from seven government ministries.

Ms Mestre has reportedly been profoundly depressed since her forced resignation, refusing to see even close friends. Waiters at a well-known seafood restaurant near the Red Cross's modern headquarters outside Madrid said the woman they knew as 'La Presidenta' used to eat there with other Red Cross officials several times a week, always signing with a Gold Visa card bearing the Red Cross's name and emblem. Ms Mestre, whose salary was around pounds 55,000 a year with a pounds 20,000 expense account and two official cars, denied spending huge amounts of Red Cross money.

'The Red Cross knew how to adapt to absolute monarchy, to the Republic, to the Civil War and to the Franco dictatorship,' wrote the daily El Pais. 'But it has not yet hooked up with democracy.'

To whom the 100kg first prize would be handed over last night was not immediately known. Sales of lottery tickets fell by up to 20 per cent this year, as a result of Ms Mestre's downfall, then after Onda Cero revealed a new scandal.

The radio station, backed by documentation, revealed that several marketing firms hired by the Red Cross last year to push Golden Lottery tickets had been paid in commissions. Figures showed, however, that the firms' 'campaigns' had failed to raise the Red Cross's net income. The radio station's documents also showed that at least two of the firms were run by relatives of senior Red Cross officials.