SUNS  4297 Thursday 8 October 1998


Buenos Aires, Oct 6 (IPS/Marcela Valente) -- The judge in the case of Marcelo Cattaneo - the entrepreneur involved in the IBM bribe scandal found hanged Sunday - on Tuesday reclassified the process from suicide inquiry to investigation of a suspicious death.

For, while the autopsy confirmed Cattaneo died from hanging - thereby ruling out strangulation and posterior suspension - the circumstances surrounding his death are largely unresolved, Judge Maria Gabriela Lanz told Buenos Aires daily "Clarin."

Cattaneo was allegedly involved in bribes paid by the IBM computing transnational to government officials here, and his apparent suicide Sunday awoke new suspicions of who is really behind the racket.

The businessman, who disappeared last Tuesday and was found hanged from a radio antenna in a lonely spot alongside the River Plate at the weekend, had twice been accused in court of being the IBM frontman.  He had not stood trial, but legislators investigating the fraud -- ruling party and opposition alike - said he appeared to be terrified and had been receiving threats.

He apparently left a list of questions to guide investigators of the bribery case, by way of a suicide note.

The two officials who fingered him as the "paymaster" are former directors of Argentine Banco de la Nacion.

In 1994, this state bank contracted IBM to install the computer systems in 525 branch offices - a $250 million contract. Some 37 million of this is estimated to have been spent on bribes.

The illegal payment was made through a subcontracted company, CCR-Consad, responsible for providing an alternative system. Cattaneo was director general of this company at the time, although he was cleared of involvement.

More recently, Judge Adolfo Bagnasco had been looking into the possibility of a retrial - even though Cattaneo's responsibility in the company was technical rather than administrative. The person who had actualy worked on advancing the contract was his brother, a former government official close to the President.

When news of the dodgy deal first broke, it was reported that IBM had paid Consad $12 million which they had passed on to suppliers later proven to be either dead or bankrupt and therefore non-existent to all intents and purposes.

Then eight million dollars were discovered in foreign bank accounts.

Deputy Carlos Soria, of the ruling Justicialist Party said Cattaneo had appeared worried when asked to testify before the commission investigating the scandal.

"We saw he was scared. He said he was being threatened, that they were following him and that they had tried to abduct one of his children from school," said Soria.

Meanwhile, Deputy Guillermo Franco, from the centre Action for the Republic Party led by former economy minister Domingo Cavallo, expressed his doubts about the supposed suicide.

Franco said Cattaneo had a lot of key information for the inquiry knowing about the business deals even though he declared himself uninvolved in the fraudulent affairs.

His friends and family classed the suicide as an absurdity. Cattaneo was not depressed and that he had denied accusations he had told the former bank directors IBM wanted to recognise their help in closing the deal offering them "a little happiness" - Buenos Aires slang for a bribe.

The brother of the deceased, Juan Carlos Cattaneo formerly held the post of undersecretary to current secretary general of the Presidency, Alberto Kohan.

Interior minister, Carlos Corach, said the police were trying to clarify the circumstances surrounding Marcelo Cattaneo's death. "We are concerned the public should be given a clear picture of the
circumstances of this death," he said.

Cattaneo's suicide appeared all the more suspicious as it is not the first to occur within the framework of a corruption case a touch too close to the Argentine rulers.

In May, another businessman, Alfredo Yabran - on the run after murdering a journalist - supposedly killed himself. Yabran owned postal and security operations, and was allegedly involved in illegal dealings with the State.

Then Horacio Estrada, a retired military man testifying in an illegal arms trafficking case with Ecuador and Croatia, did the same in August.

In the case between IBM and the Banco Nacion, the government not only faces the accusations against state bank directors, but suspicions about Kohan, President Carlos Menem's presidential secretary, due to his proximity to Cattaneo's brother.
Juan Carlos Cattaneo is also on trial in the case and, according to what his brother told legislators, he masterminded the deal making full use of his links to Kohan.

So far no external signs of violence have been found to suggest Cattaneo was killed first and then suspended, although the police say it is too early to write off any hypothesis.

Since the federal courts first began the investigation earlier this year, the judges have been calling for a court appearance from the four IBM directors at the head office in the United States who, according to company executive in Argentina, authorised the operation.

But US justice is blocking them from testifying, leaning on a bilateral accord which demands evidence be presented against witnesses in one country before they can be forced to testify in another nation's courts.