Spanish ex-minister refuses calls to resign over alleged mask scandal

Former Spanish Transport Minister Jose Luis Abalos on Tuesday refused calls from the ruling Socialist Party (PSOE) to resign as a lawmaker after his assistant was accused of taking bribes to facilitate mask contracts during the COVID pandemic.

The PSOE on Monday gave Abalos, transport minister between 2018 and 2021, 24 hours to resign, saying that while he has not been accused of any crime he bears "political responsibility."

But Abalos, arguing he had done nothing wrong, said he would continue as an independent lawmaker "to restore my honour."

"I cannot end my political career as a corrupt person when I am innocent," Abalos said in press conference in Madrid.

The alleged mask scandal and loss of a parliamentary seat come at a delicate moment for Socialist prime minister Pedro Sanchez's minority government, which is dependent on unstable support from Catalan nationalist and other regional parties to pass key legislation, such as the budget.

Abalos said he will become part of a bloc known as the mixed group which includes four lawmakers from the left-wing Podemos party, which fell out with Sanchez's junior coalition partners Sumar.

Anti-corruption prosecutors accuse Abalos' personal assistant Koldo Garcia of taking payments to act as a conduit between the government and Soluciones de Gestion y Apoyo a las Empresas SL, a company created in 2017 to supply electricity generators, according to court documents.

Prosecutors accuse Garcia of receiving payments after he helped the company win contracts to supply masks to Spanish ports and the state railway company ADIF, among others, while Abalos was transport minister.

Abalos defended his role in procurement of medical equipment during the pandemic, arguing that he had obtained supply below market prices. He described Garcia's alleged role as an intermediary in the contracts as "reprehensible" and "repugnant," and that the investigation would determine whether his former assistant was guilty.

Garcia's lawyer did not immediately respond to a request for comment. PSOE said it will begin procedures to expel Abalos from the party.