Judge: Argentine commerce secretary abused power

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Argentine Commerce Secretary Guillermo Moreno has been formally charged with abusing his power by trying to fine economists who publish independent inflation data.

This turns the tables on Moreno, who last week filed charges against several private economists for “speculation” and trying to enrich their clients by releasing such false information. Judge Claudio Bonadio also placed a 50,000-peso ($8,735) lien on the minister’s assets, pending trial, and filed similar charges against two lower-ranking commerce ministry officials.

The judge said Moreno’s efforts to fine economists 500,000 pesos (roughly $87,700 at today’s official rate) was “nothing other than an effort to silence” experts who were releasing “public information” in the form of technical data that challenges the government’s official inflation rate of around 10 percent.

The case against Moreno was initially filed by Jorge Todesca, a former minister who heads an economic consulting firm that has frequently reported inflation at 20 percent or higher.

It states that Moreno’s interference with the work of private economists represents “an arbitrary and forceful act” by a minister who has no right to take such actions. He could face two years in prison if convicted.

In his written response, Moreno argues that he was “acting in full compliance with his functional responsibilities” as minister of trade, and that the economic consulting firms are publishing false data to unfairly generate “extraordinary profits” for their clients.

Last week, the Argentine Congress began debating a provisional budget for 2014 that forecasts strong economic growth of 6.2 percent, with 10.4 percent inflation — figures that drew immediate criticism from outside analysts.

Argentina’s inflation numbers have been in doubt since 2007, when President Cristina Fernandez’s late husband and predecessor, Nestor Kirchner, had political appointees change the methodology of the official statistics agency, INDEC.

To protect themselves from Moreno, the private economists have been giving their monthly estimates to opposition lawmakers, who announce an average inflation rate each month in Congress. That rate has consistently shown prices increasing at least twice as fast as official numbers, which are in such disrepute that the International Monetary Fund no longer reports them.

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