- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 1, 2004

MADRID — Former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar is hinting at legal action against his opponents, including officials in the current government, who say $2 million paid to a Washington lobbying firm was improperly used to bolster Mr. Aznar’s image as a U.S. ally in the war on terror.

Spain hired the D.C. firm Piper Rudnick for public relations and lobbying, which among other things, pushed for Mr. Aznar to receive the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal, according to Spanish press reports.

At the time, Mr. Aznar joined British Prime Minister Tony Blair as U.S. allies in the war on Iraq.

But Spanish voters ousted Mr. Aznar’s party after the March train bombings in Madrid that killed 191 persons, and the new Spanish government soon after pulled its troops out of Iraq.

Spain’s Cadena SER radio network, which has close ties to the ruling Socialist Party, broadcast reports of the $2 million public-relations contract last month, just as Spain’s current prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, celebrated his first 100 days in office.

Mr. Aznar called the report political “revenge” against him and his pro-U.S. Popular Party.

“Never have I used public funds for my benefit,” Mr. Aznar said in response to the charges.

“[This was] politically motivated to destroy eight years of good government by the Popular Party,” Mr. Aznar said “It is a complete and total disgrace, besides being serious calumny and serious slander.”

Spain’s leftist parties, whose members are known for their anti-American views, have attacked Mr. Aznar by saying he secretly hired Piper Rudnick not to benefit Spain, but to enhance his personal image.

Socialist Party Foreign Affairs Secretary Trinidad Jimenez, who is a key Zapatero aide, told Cadena SER that “public funds were used in order to satisfy the vanity” of the ex-president.

Mr. Aznar, who is on a press tour promoting his autobiography, “Eight Years of Government: A Personal Vision of Spain,” said he feels like a victim of “a pure annihilation campaign” that wants to “crush” the pro-American, conservative Popular Party “as opposition.”

“I already have retired from politics,” Mr. Aznar said. “[They want] to destroy eight years of clean, honorable and effective government. This is a game of political survival from the democratic opposition that aspires to return to government.”

Spain first jumped into the public-relations game in 1983, when Socialist Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez hired a now-defunct Washington firm to improve the country’s image in the United States and to arrange for a meeting between Mr. Gonzalez and President Reagan.

Ramon Gil-Casares, a former foreign-affairs official in Mr. Aznar’s government, said the contract with Piper Rudnick is “perfectly legal and habitual.”

There was no mention of plans for Mr. Aznar to receive the medal, he said, noting that the contract was of a “general character.”

According to the contract, Piper Rudnick was hired “to help the Government of Spain in public diplomacy and strategic communication” in order to strengthen relations between the two countries.

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