Judge rules €1.25 million art fraud ‘too old to hold anyone accountable’

Former BPN director of Private Banking found guilty, sentenced to jail, walks free

The extraordinary story of how a €1.25 million fraud bounced around the Portuguese justice system until the crimes involved ‘lapsed’ has been told today in tabloid Correio da Manhã which devotes editorial space to the fact that the lapsing of judicial time limits (or ‘prescription’ as it is termed legally) is the weapon of the influential.

Fifty years since the implantation of the Portuguese Republic (the 50th anniversary falls on April 25), it is actually “sad” to see how unequally the rich and the poor are still treated by the courts, writes deputy editorial director Eduardo Dâmaso.

“In the times in which we are living, there are very few things that surprise us. Reality has vampirised all the extravagances of fiction…” he considers.

Damâso’s opinion is that citizens “should not accept the inevitability of chaos, of incompetence and irresponsibility”. But that is what seems to be happening. News like this – particularly coming as it has on a searingly hot weekend, when everyone is out sunning on the beach, or socialising with friends – may barely turn a hair.

CM’s deputy editorial director “hopes, without great expectation, that there will be a rapid and efficient investigation of the Superior Council of Magistrature” to find out why, exactly, such an obvious fraud has been allowed to fall by the wayside, after painstaking evidence gathering, and so many guilty verdicts.

Fifty years ago, he says, no one believed it would still be possible for influential people to “sing in the courts that prescription is a weapon. And what a weapon it is!”

His observation comes as endless ‘long-running cases’, invariably involving suspicions of high level corruption by the rich and powerful, are also tipping deftly towards the safe-space of ‘prescription’.

This particular story, briefly (as it seems to be no longer relevant) involves the former director of Private Banking of BPN José Viamonte de Sousa who, in 2021, was condemned to seven years and 10 months in jail by Judge Pedro Brito, in the São João de Novo court of Porto, for crimes of qualified fraud and money laundering dating back to 2004, relating to negotiations over a sale of artworks for the bank.

Mr Viamonte de Sousa appealed the decision – remaining free while he did so – and at the end of that year vice-president of the Porto Appeals Court, Maria Dolores de Sousa, reduced his jail term to six and a half years, “but ignored the indication of the dates of prescription contained in the process – suspended until 3 June 2022 – and admitted an appeal to the Supreme Court of Justice, which she knew was not admissible because there were already two decisions in the same sense (double conformity)”, writes CM.

Fast forward a few more months (prescription fast approaching, bearing in mind these crimes were committed 17 years previously), and the Supreme Court rejects the appeal, stressing that for the guilty verdict and reduced jail time to come into effect the case had to be returned to Porto Appeals Court “because of a lapse in the writing”.

This lapse was corrected in October 2022. But at this point Mr Viamonte de Sousa’s defence “required with urgency” that the case be returned to the original court (where their client was first found guilty): the court of São João de Novo, in Porto.

Judge Maria Dolores ordered this return a few weeks later – and the “totality of the case only arrived at the court of first instance on March 16” this year – at which point it was declared ‘extinct’, and the case was archived.

Judge Pedro Brito ruled that the maximum limit for prosecuting a crime of qualified fraud had been reached on July 12 of the previous year, and that for money laundering on August 16, also 2022.

As CM concludes, up till this moment, José Viamonte de Sousa hasn’t had to return a ‘cêntimo’ of the money he diverted (his way) almost 20 years ago, and he most certainly won’t be going to jail.

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Portugal Resident