02/15/2013 11:07 am ET Updated Apr 13, 2013

My Big Fat Spanish Corruption Story

There he was, Mario Conde, pacing while talking on his phone, Spain's most iconic banker turned politician who spent years in jail for embezzlement. I had just finished with makeup and went downstairs to the set to get microphoned and be told where to sit. We were both about to participate in a panel on Spanish TV's most-watched right-wing political program El Gato Al Agua (named for the expression "take the cat to the water" which means to have the upper hand). The topic: Spain's recent epidemic of political corruption.

From the outside, politics and corruption seem to go hand in hand but when you work on the inside, the day to day is much more mundane. You hardly expect to find yourself unwittingly entangled in the type of sordid affair that makes big headlines. But I did.

During the first six months of 2011 I worked as an international media consultant at Spain's Socialist Party think tank, the IDEAS Foundation (or Fundación IDEAS in Spanish). In addition to liaising with non-Spanish media, I edited anything we published in English. One writer I worked with was an American named Amy Martin. Being a new and mostly publicly-funded think tank with some private funding, we typically relied on politicians and academics who were close to the party and willing to write sporadically for free. Inviting writers to contribute articles was part of my job and I have contributed two such articles myself. But I was told that Martin had some sort of agreement to write once a month and it was important for me to be on top of it.

Martin, it turned out, was a mystery. She didn't provide us with a bio, Google turned up nothing and she was vague in her e-mails written in an English that just wasn't quite native. My boss, the foundation's communication director, wasn't interested in my concerns about who she was and over time I got busy with other projects and just didn't think much more about her until the Spanish daily El Mundo broke the story.

It started with a front page headline revealing that some of the foundation's leaders had been siphoning work and payments to family members and friends. Three days later, we learned that the foundation's executive director, Carlos Mulas, had been using a pseudonym to write articles for the foundation for payments totaling about €50,000 ($67,000). The pseudonym was Amy Martin.

The next day, Mulas' wife, Irene Zoe Alameda, sent a statement to the press claiming that it was all her doing and that Mulas knew nothing, a preposterous story since someone within the foundation had to have approved the astronomical payments of €3,000 ($3,900) per article. Mulas was immediately fired from the foundation for his role in this affair. This relatively minor corruption story snowballed into a juicy piece of gossip. The bleach-bottle blonde ex-wife of the executive director had made racy music videos that played in the background of El Gato Al Agua while we discussed the very serious topic of political corruption in Spain and its possible causes.

The Mulas corruption story is really a parenthesis in between revelations from a much bigger scandal involving Spain's ruling Popular Party and the alleged envelopes with cash kickbacks from corporations handed to leaders on a regular basis, including Spain's current Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

There was general consensus amongst the right and left that night on El Gato Al Agua that the underlying cause of Spain's rampant corruption is systemic. Spain's political system, conceived during it's famously peaceful transition in the late 1970's from a dictatorship to democracy, was built for stability, favoring a strong two party system. This makes it somewhat of an anomaly amongst other European countries with parliamentary systems in which many parties are active. Members of Spain's Parliament owe their jobs to party bosses who put them on a closed list that only allows voters to vote for the party, not individual candidates. Once in parliament, they must practice "party discipline" meaning they vote how leaders tell them to or they face fines and eventual expulsion from the party.

Ideally this is something concrete that can be fixed, however, political leaders are naturally reluctant to change the systems they've mastered. By virtue of being in a leadership position, they have proved themselves adept at the current system--why would they want to go and change it? So, agitation for change must come from the outside, from the citizens themselves, which is particularly problematic when widespread political corruption leads to widespread cynicism among citizens which leads to apathy and inaction.

Spain is not the only country that needs to strengthen it's political processes and institutions. The concentrated power at the top Spain's publicly-funded party structures may seem absurdly prone to corruption from an American point of view. But conversely, the United States' privately financed parties and campaigns seem equally absurd and prone to corruption from a Spanish point of view. The 2012 corruption perception index from puts Spain on the less-corrupt end of the spectrum, ranking it 30th among 176 countries and territories. The U.S. did just a little better coming in at 19.

We all can benefit from a stronger understanding of our respective country's institutions, systems and processes, something our media organizations aren't always so good at explaining or providing space for. Amongst the generally well-intentioned people working at public institutions, there will always be bad apples, so we need to build and improve systems that reduce their ability to drag their institutions down with them.

Although I won't turn down further consulting work for political parties in the future, for the moment, I've thrown my lot in with Spain's citizens and have pledged to offer free grassroots organizing workshops in Madrid. The first one is scheduled for March 2nd and I hope to be part of Spain's solution by playing a small role in developing citizen activism and advocacy.

This post has been updated to reflect that the author's understanding of the IDEAS Foundation's practice of non-payment for articles is through personal experience; the IDEAS Foundation receives both public and private financing; the author reported to the director of communication; Mulas-Granados' connection to the scandal is well-established in the Spanish media; and Irene Zoe Alameda is Carlos Mulas-Granados' wife not ex-wife.