The Hungarian National Bank cagily released the documentation on its foundations’ grants and contracts Friday night after 5 p.m., but the timing didn’t help much. The outcry was immediate. And ever since, more and more revelations have been adding fuel to fire, from the grants given to relatives of György Matolcsy to the extra money that went to the wife of Chief Prosecutor Péter Polt. (In addition to her regular job as one of the department heads of the bank she also sits on the boards of several foundations.) The opposition, including Jobbik, is up in arms. All parties demand an investigation as well as the abolition of the six foundations which, by all accounts, were established illegally.
News travels fast, especially nowadays. The Financial Times carried the story of the resignation of the journalists at vs.hu on its front page. The New York Times and the Washington Post also covered the story. Bloomberg had a complete rundown on Chairman Matolcsy’s machinations with the almost one billion U.S. dollars that was moved from the assets of the National Bank to private foundations. If something like this had happened in western Europe, it would undoubtedly have resulted in the resignation of the chairman of the central bank and perhaps even the whole government. In Hungary, however, nothing of the sort will happen. As Lajos Bokros, the former finance minister, put it when asked about the consequences, “I have no illusions. As long as we are saddled with the Orbán regime, nothing will change.”
Despite the many juicy stories surrounding this case, we shouldn’t get bogged down in details. The important thing to keep in mind is that the very establishment of these foundations was illegal. Bokros in a post on Facebook summarized the legal objections to Matolcsy’s “unorthodox” handling of the assets of the central bank. (1) All money that is accrued over the fiscal year by the bank must be put into the budget of the Hungarian state. Matolcsy, in office now for three years, has not been doing this. (2) The National Bank cannot establish foundations because by doing so it siphons public funds from the budget. (3) The Bank cannot utilize funds for public purposes because the utilization of public funds can be done only with the approval of parliament. (4) The Hungarian National Bank cannot get involved in the formulation of fiscal policy. Its only job is the formulation and execution of monetary policy. (5) The National Bank cannot attempt to transform public money into private funds because that is intentional theft and fraud.
Péter Róna, another economist and banking expert, in a conversation with György Bolgár on Klubrádió this afternoon added that the only assets Matolcsy could have used to buy works of art, musical instruments, or even to establish foundations were the bank’s private “income” from dues paid by banks and entrance fees to view the bank’s numismatic collection, which when Róna was a member of the board of directors a couple of years ago was no more than 4 billion forints a year. The foundations received 260 billion forints, more than 17 billion went for real estate, and an incredible amount of money was spent on artwork, including a picture by Titian for 4.5 billion forints.
From the general silence, it is apparent that members of the government and Fidesz-KDNP MPs find the whole scandal most unfortunate. When journalists asked questions of László Kövér and Viktor Orbán in the corridors of the parliament building, the politicians just kept going, eyes fixed on the floor. They refused to utter one word. Some of the lesser characters tried to act dumb. The excuse of one of the Fidesz deputy chairmen, Szilárd Németh, was that since he has only a simple cell phone, not like the journalists with their smart phones, he had heard nothing about the whole thing. I suspect that they were told to remain silent in the hope that eventually the whole scandal will just die down. However, I would like to remind Árpád Habony and Antal Rogán, head of the propaganda ministry, that this kind of strategy didn’t work in President Pál Schmitt’s plagiarism case.
Behind the stony silence I suspect fear because journalists of four independent organs were told yesterday that they will not be able to enter the parliament building for an unspecified duration. The four publications are Népszabadság, HVG, Index, and 24.hu. Letters notifying the editors-in-chief of the decision asked the editors to instruct their colleagues to obey the rules governing the presence of journalists in the parliamentary building “in order to maintain your publication’s parliamentary accreditation.”
In addition to the silence, the decision must have made somewhere high up, most likely in Fidesz, to leak a ten-year-old story according to which Péter Medgyessy, prime minister of Hungary (2002-2004), received 597,000 euros from the French company Alstom while he was serving as “traveling ambassador” for the country. After Medgyessy resigned, his successor Ferenc Gyurcsány named him to the post as a kind of consolation price. At the same time, however, Medgyessy returned to his old consulting business. Magyar Idők claims that the money Medgyessy received from Alstom was not compensation for his consulting services but a bribe in connection with Alstom’s bid for the metro cars for the new M4 metro line negotiated in and around 2006. Alstom was found guilty of paying more than $750 million in bribes to government officials around the world in December 2014. To make sure that the story sticks, a few hours later Magyar Idők also published a tabloid-like editorial.
Lajos Kósa, leader of the Fidesz parliamentary caucus, announced that “no prime minister in the 25 years of our democracy was accused of such a crime. Péter Medgyessy must give an account of that sum.” The prime minister’s office immediately joined the chorus, and its spokesman promised an investigation into how “this money is connected to the governance of the left.” They will investigate not only the affairs of the former prime minister but also those of former Budapest mayor Gábor Demszky. As for Medgyessy, he admits that he received almost 600,000 euros from Alstom through a Danish and Austrian company but claims it was all on the up and up.
Of course, at this stage we have no idea what transpired, but I must admit that 600,000 euros for a consulting fee is pretty steep. I heard Csaba Molnár (DK) contemplate the possibility that the reason for Medgyessy’s rather sympathetic attitude toward the Orbán government of late might have something to do with Fidesz’s holding this information over his head. Of course, this is just speculation, but it was rather embarrassing when a few months ago Medgyessy claimed in a radio interview that the Orbán government’s corruption is no different from corruption during the socialist-liberal period. I guess this also included his own two years as prime minister.
I’m sure that the pro-government media, including state TV, will keep this issue alive while an investigation will immediately begin into the bribery charge against Medgyessy and perhaps even against Demszky. Meanwhile, of course, nothing will happen on the Matolcsy front.