The former executive chairman of Spanish lender BBVA has stepped down from his honorary chairmanship amid an ongoing investigation into corporate spying during his time heading the bank.

In a letter to current BBVA chairman Carlos Torres Vila published in Spanish media Thursday, Francisco González said that he would “temporarily” step down from his role until the investigation was concluded so that he would not be used to “damage” BBVA.

Mr González’s temporary resignation comes a day before the bank’s annual shareholder meeting.

In January, Spanish news websites El Confidencial and Moncloa.com reported that BBVA had hired a corporate services company called Grupo Cenyt in 2004 to investigate executives from the construction firm Sacyr Vallehermoso in order to head off a takeover bid by the company that would have pushed out Mr González.

The investigation reportedly included members of former prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s socialist government, which was believed to support the takeover bid.

Cenyt is linked to José Manuel Villarejo, a former police official who has been in prison since 2017 in connection with a corruption case.

According to the reports, Villarejo’s firm gained access to some 15,000 telephone calls that included then Sacyr chairman Luis del Rivero and Miguel Sebastian, the chief economic adviser to Mr Zapatero.

Since the reports were published, Mr Del Rivero and Mr Sebastián have added themselves to the state’s suit against Mr Villarejo.

After the January media reports, BBVA announced that it had been investigating its work with Cenyt since June 2018, and several days later, Mr Torres Vila wrote a letter to employees about the state of the investigation.

Mr Torres Vila said the probe had verified that Grupo Cenyt had worked for the bank, but had not turned up documentation showing “the monitoring and intervention of private communications.”

“If true, it would be undoubtedly extremely serious, deplorable behaviour,” Mr Torres Vila said of the reported spying.

The bank hired the consultancy PwC and external lawyers to pursue independent investigations, which are ongoing.

“For a year we have suffered long and continued media attack based on the judicial and police investigations,” Mr González wrote in Thursday’s letter to Mr Torres Vila. Mr González said that he had launched the bank’s internal investigation in June 2018 to “assure that the bank had acted in accordance with its principles.”

“I believe my decision,” Mr González said of his temporary resignation, “will help it be understood with how much rigor, lack of personal interest, and commitment we have worked for so long.”

BBVA declined to comment on the letter. Cenyt did not have any immediate comment on the matter.

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