efe_epaValencia (Spain)

The main ringleaders of a sprawling web of corruption that involved Spanish politicians and businessmen alike on Friday were handed significant prison sentences, according to a verdict issued by the court.

The regional court in Valencia decided to imprison 11 of the 13 accused _ including private citizens as well as public officials _ whom it found guilty of bid rigging, embezzlement, bribery, influence peddling, illegal association with criminal intent, obstruction of justice and false billing.

This constituted the first verdict in the ongoing judicial investigation into the so-called "Gürtel" case, one of the biggest political corruption scandals in Spanish history that resulted in an estimated loss to public finances of at least 120 million euros ($128 million).

The case derived its codename from Francisco Correa Sánchez, a Spanish businessman who was arrested in 2009 accused of money laundering, bribery, influence peddling and tax evasion, among other charges.

The word "Gürtel" in German is a rough translation of the Spanish "Correa," which means "belt."

Correa was closely linked to the conservative Popular Party (PP), as he was a personal friend of former Prime Minister José María Aznar's son-in-law Alejandro Agag.

He also maintained close business and personal relationships with several mayors, city councilors and officials in regions governed by the PP, such as Valencia and Madrid.

According to investigations by the Spanish tax agency, starting in 1999, Correa and his partners in crime managed to quickly set up a complex web of bribes and tax fraud schemes while eluding any fiscal control.

"The Correa network of companies was created 'ex professo' to benefit itself from disproportionate profit margins that were obtained by duplicating expenditure items and billing non-existent expenses," according to judicial sources.

Correa has been given a sentence of 13 years in prison.

His main associates were Pablo Crespo _ a businessman and formerly a senior PP official in Galicia (northwestern Spain) _ and Álvaro Pérez, known by the nickname "El Bigotes" ("The Moustache") _ an eccentric entrepreneur who gained notoriety when it came to light that he had lavishly gifted 13,000 euros in tailored suits to the regional president of Valencia.

Crespo has been sentenced to 13 years and three months in prison, while Pérez received a sentence of 12 years and three months.

Friday's 558-page court decision was focused mainly on one item of hundreds involved in the complex Gürtel web: the rigging of public contract bids for the design and setup of the stand commissioned by Valencia's regional government between 2005 and 2009 at Madrid's renowned International Tourism Fair (Fitur).

For five years in a row, shell companies controlled by Correa, Crespo and Pérez won the Fitur bids to the tune of 5 million euros thanks to the collaboration of accomplices in the regional government's tourism department.

The former head of that department, Milagrosa Martínez (known by her cohorts as "The Pearl"), was sentenced to nine years in prison for embezzlement and passive bribery.

Martínez was the speaker of Valencia's regional parliament between 2007 and 2011 and a heavyweight in the PP's Valencia branch.

She also received a Hublot luxury wristwatch as a gift from "The Moustache" Pérez; the court ordered its confiscation and estimated its value at 2,400 euros.

Four of her subordinates in the tourism department were handed prison sentences for their part in the scheme: the head of the Valencian tourist agency, Isaac Vidal (seven years); Martínez's former chief of staff, Rafael Betoret (six years); and employees Jorge Guarro (four) and Ana Grau (three).

The court concluded that the tourism department altered and manipulated the adjudication criteria in the contracts to illicitly benefit Correa's business network, in addition to providing the ringleaders with privileged information.

The company that was awarded the contracts, Orange Market, lacked the personnel and material means to carry out those contracts, the court said, so it would outsource the actual job of setting up the Valencia stand to third parties.

By using this method, the ring profited immensely as it kept large margins of the public funds it received from the Valencian government.

The inflated bills were accepted by the regional administration (including the tourism department, the tourist agency, the housing and territorial department and the infrastructure and transport department) without the slightest oversight.

"Not only did (the administration) not properly and effectively oversee the payments, but it also knowingly altered the contracts' adjudication criteria and irregularly benefited Correa's businesses," read the sentence.

Correa and his partners thus knew in advance about the adjudication criteria, which were often tailored to their convenience.

Three other people belonging to Correa's network were found guilty of taking part in the plot: Isabel Jordán, who was sentenced to six years in prison; Cándido Herrero (four years and four months) and Mónica Magariños (three years).

All three were absolved of their influence peddling charges.

Of the 13 people who stood trial, only two were completely exonerated: Angélica Such, who succeeded Martínez as tourism department head but kept Betoret as chief of staff, and Juan Bover, a civil servant in the regional government.

The 11 convicts were each given fines ranging from 900 euros to 3.92 million euros.

The court also demanded that all convicts except Grau pay 272,000 euros in solidarity compensation to the regional government of Valencia.

In addition, it ordered the seizure of 1.94 million euros in Orange Market assets.

The Fitur part of the Gürtel case thus came to a close, although many trials related to the network that promoted rampant corruption in the Spanish public administration and the country's biggest political party (the PP currently controls the central government, seven autonomous regions and around 3,000 towns and cities) are still pending.