Wind energy corruption

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MARCO WERMAN: In Southern Europe, legal problems of another kind are making headlines. Spain is enjoying a boom in solar and wind power. We reported that story the other day. Well, as money has flowed into renewable energy, corruption appears to have seeped in, too. The most spectacular case has unfolded in the tiny town of La Muela in Northeast Spain. A few years ago, La Muela began letting companies set up electricity-generating windmills on its land and the town grew rich, perhaps too rich. Now the town's mayor and several top officials are in jail. The World's Gerry Hadden reports.

GERRY HADDEN: Some 500 windmills surround La Muela. They generate electricity - and money - for the town. As long as the wind is blowing. And the wind is almost always blowing. In a decade La Muela has grown so rich off wind power that it's built two theatres, a museum, a sports complex, even its own bullring. Each year, long time mayor Maria Victoria Pinilla has taken residents on all-expenses-paid vacations to exotic resorts around the world. But now the mayor is in jail. In what police call Operation Windmill she's been arrested for allegedly accepting kickbacks for approving massive new housing projects. Her lawyer, Javier Notivoli, says she's done nothing wrong.


GERRY HADDEN: ?She hasn't committed any crime,? he says, ?and she can prove it. No matter what they throw at her, it won't stick.? 18 others have also been charged with corruption in La Muela, including the mayor's son, a town counselor, and the town architect. The scandal here all started with the windmills, says Alfredo Bone, a regional politician, because the renewable energy boom caused the town's property values to soar.

GERRY HADDEN: ?Growth here really took off,? he says, ?and the money was flowing in like crazy. That made all the villagers happy, but it opened up the possibilities for fraud, which is apparently what we are dealing with now.? Residents in the town of La Muela have expressed outrage. Not over their leaders' alleged misbehavior, but because they've been detained.


GERRY HADDEN: This man told Spanish TV that if it weren't for the Mayor this town would have ended up in the garbage. The prosecutors have no right to do this to her and her son and neighbors. God will not forgive them, he says. Construction kickbacks and bribes are common in Spain, in part because towns have few ways to raise money apart from fees on building projects. Spain's central government forbids them from levying most local taxes. But there's a historical reason too, says Ramon Puch. Puch heads the association of technical architects in Barcelona.


GERRY HADDEN: He says, ?Spain had 4 decades of dictatorship during which time there was no democratic control over public works. Any type of bad practice was possible. It created some bad habits that over time people began to consider normal.? Given this history of corruption it was almost inevitable that scandals related to renewable energy projects would emerge. Take the proposed wind farm in the town of Bigastro. There, the mayor, Jose Joaquim Moya, was also recently arrested. He's charged with selling secret information on where a wind farm was going to be built. Investors then bought the land cheap, and made huge profits when the windmill project was announced.


GERRY HADDEN: ?Time passes very slowly in jail,? Moya told reporters when he posted bail in January. But Moya could end up doing a lot more time. If convicted, he could be sent to jail for years. For the world, I'm Gerry Hadden, in Barcelona.