FAYETTEVILLE -- Four years ago, Ricardo Martinelli stood smiling on a Bud Walton Arena stage as president of Panama and the recipient of an honorary degree.
Ricardo Martinelli, at the time the president of Panama, signals a strike after throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at a Razorbacks baseball game on Feb. 20, 2010, at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville.
University of Arkansas System President Donald Bobbitt bestows an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree to Ricardo Martinelli in May 2013.
Ricardo Martinelli addresses the 67th session of the U.N. General Assembly as president of Panama on Sept. 25, 2012.
The former University of Arkansas, Fayetteville international student is the school's first graduate to become a head of state, and his ties to UA increased with his profile after being elected Panama's leader in 2009.
Those ties, like a place on the school's top volunteer fundraising committee and on an advisory board to the business dean, continue despite corruption allegations related to his presidency, which ended in 2014.
Panama's top court has opened nine investigations, including two this year, looking into claims against Martinelli that include extortion, embezzlement, illegal telephone wiretapping and "crimes against the public administration (acceptance of bribes)," according to a document the Central American country filed last month with U.S. securities regulators.
In a separate case, U.S. and other foreign prosecutors, while not naming Martinelli, describe "more than $59 million in corrupt payments to government officials and intermediaries working on their behalf" made in Panama during a time frame coinciding with his term as president, according to court documents filed as part of an approximately $3.6 billion settlement in what is known as the Odebrecht corruption scandal.
Martinelli, in an email last week to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, denied involvement in corrupt payments from Brazilian construction conglomerate Odebrecht or any other company.
"All alleged allegations are politically motivated and none have any facts, nor evidence nor proof, after 3 years of investigations, false witness, etc.," said Martinelli, 65.
He left Panama in January 2015 as a corruption investigation opened, The Associated Press reported, and, according to Bloomberg, soon decamped to a luxury condo in Miami. In September, Panama requested Martinelli's extradition from the U.S., according to the country's filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. No charges against Martinelli have been filed as a result of the Panama Supreme Court investigations, the document states.
Martinelli said that in Panama, "there is not an independent judiciary, NO rule of law nor there is nor due process of law."
In Arkansas, he seemingly maintains a cache of goodwill.
"We are aware of the situation," university spokesman Mark Rushing said in an email when asked about Martinelli, confirming his place on the voluntary UA committees.
Rushing said Martinelli has "not attended a meeting or to our knowledge visited campus in several years."
But Martinelli was invited to t̶a̶l̶k̶ ̶o̶n̶ ̶c̶a̶m̶p̶u̶s̶ ̶t̶h̶i̶s̶ ̶A̶p̶r̶i̶l̶ ̶a̶t̶ ̶a̶n̶ ̶e̶v̶e̶n̶t̶ attend an event this April* organized by Panamanian students, though he did not appear.
"He's helped a lot of people," Antonio Beitia, an agricultural economics doctoral student from Panama, said at the event, where Jaime Figueroa Navarro, a Panamanian businessman and writer, spoke about economic opportunities in the country.
Rushing said Figueroa invited Martinelli, rather than the registered student organization.
"If [a student organization] did invite Mr. Martinelli, the university would have no issue with that," Rushing said.
Beitia, 27, has earned bachelor's and master's degrees from UA, and, in a phone interview, spoke admiringly of Martinelli, calling him an "icon."
The 1973 UA graduate earned his fortune in the supermarket business. In Panama, a country of about 3.75 million people famous for the Panama Canal and as a trade hub, "successful businessmen are revered," said Orlando Perez, a Panama politics expert and an associate dean at Millersville University in Pennsylvania.
Martinelli became "sort of a right-wing populist" known for "speaking very colloquially, not being fancy with his speech," Perez said, adding that Martinelli also became "very vocal against people that he felt were his enemies."
The U.S. State Department's Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs, in an annual statement on Panama from last year, noted that while current Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela emphasized anti-corruption measures in his campaign, Martinelli "campaigned on a similar promise in 2009."
Now, however, "he and his administration are adjudged by Panamanians to have been the most corrupt administration since the return to democracy in 1990." The statement says there are "a number of Martinelli administration figures in jail or under investigation for alleged acts of official corruption," and also notes that the country's judicial system "continues to pose a problem for investors due to poorly trained personnel, case backlogs, and a lack of independence from political influence."
Despite what amounts to a life in exile, Martinelli criticized Varela, who was his vice president, and confidently described future plans.
"Most likely my political party will win the next presidential elections in 2019 and I will run for mayor of Panama city and probably also for Vice President. I can run for both positions. In 2024, I will run again for President," he said.
Perez, a critic of Martinelli, said, "in all honesty, I think some people look at his administration fondly, because it was a period of booming economy."
But Perez said he doubts that Martinelli has much of a political future and questioned UA's continued ties to him.
"If Martinelli was more of a world figure, and people in Fayetteville and Arkansas knew about him, I would think the university would in fact have cut ties a long time ago," Perez said.
A college friend of Martinelli's from the early 1970s, Bev Hargraves, said he recalled Martinelli as someone who "would do what he said he was going to do," adding that he found the allegations "hard to believe." He said he thinks UA should keep Martinelli in the volunteer roles.
Another academic who has written about Panama, Stephen Ropp, a distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Wyoming, said he had no concerns upon Martinelli's election.
"But then, as time went on, shoes started dropping, one after another," Ropp said, also questioning continued ties between a public university like UA and Martinelli.
"I think it should be an acute embarrassment to the State and amount to a kind of 'negative branding,'" Ropp said in an email, adding that an interim suspension imposed on Martinelli by UA might be appropriate.
Panamanians have taken to the streets to protest governmental corruption, Perez said, and legal experts describe the Odebrecht inquiry in particular as signaling a change in attitudes.
"The story is not, 'Oh my gosh, bribery in procurement in Latin America,'" said Andy Spalding, a law professor at the University of Richmond School of Law who also is a senior editor of a blog devoted to the U.S. law against foreign corrupt practices. "What's news is that the enforcement officials are working together in multiple countries, led by Brazil, to hold people accountable. That is historic, a legal and cultural turning point."
Television news video from January posted on YouTube.com shows Mario Martinelli, Ricardo's brother, angrily denying involvement with the Odebrecht scandal and denouncing the country's Public Ministry, a part of government involved with the prosecution of criminal cases.
Mario Martinelli, with a $100,000 gift to UA in 2013, established a fund to help Panamanian students. Mario Martinelli, like Ricardo, is among 149 volunteers listed by UA as "campaign volunteer leadership" on its website for a $1 billion fundraising effort, Campaign Arkansas.
Rushing said the university believes Mario Martinelli's last campus visit was 2013. Campaign steering committee members are asked to attend two meetings per year for an eight-year term, with most members having been selected in 2011 or 2012, Rushing said, and there is no policy for revoking membership. Policies also do not state how an honorary degree might be revoked.
Ricardo Martinelli also has established scholarships at UA and provided other funds. Gift amounts from Martinelli totaled $200,000, not including a scholarship established in his name, based on documents released by UA under the state's public-disclosure law, none listing a date more recent than 2014.
Beitia, the doctoral student, said Martinelli on a campus visit ended up purchasing a plane ticket for him to return to Panama over the school's winter break.
"It was my duty and the honorable thing to do," Martinelli said of ticket purchases for Beitia and other students, with the expense coming from "either of my own pocket or the government funds."
He is one of about 50 business leaders on the Sam M. Walton College of Business Dean's Executive Advisory Board, but has attended only one meeting since joining the board in 2013, said UA spokesman David Speer.
"If people aren't engaged, they shouldn't be on the board," said Matt Waller, top leader at the business college since 2015.
Waller said he remembers meeting Martinelli at a football game, he thinks in 2015, but, as far as the advisory board, "he's never responded to any emails and he's never come to any of our meetings since I've been involved."
"When you look at allegations, I think you should be careful about removing people," Waller said, adding that he does not know what's true about the claims against Martinelli.
Martinelli said he has "always mentioned with great pride that I was a graduate of U of A," calling the school "a jewel to be discovered by many."
Asked if he has considered stepping down as a UA volunteer, Martinelli said: "All honorary positions are at the disposal of the institution always."
Metro on 06/04/2017
*CORRECTION: University of Arkansas, Fayetteville students invited former Panamanian president Ricardo Martinelli to attend a campus event in April about economic opportunities in that country. A previous version of this story contained incorrect information about who invited him. Martinelli, who did not attend, said in an email he was invited to speak, but event planning documents from a student organizer do not list him as an event speaker..
Print Headline: Panama's ex-leader faces graft case, retains UA ties