Tag Archives: corruption

Viktor Orbán and Ghaith Pharaon: The end of a business relationship?

Although I’m aware that regular commenters on Hungarian Spectrum seem to be interested only in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s victory, I have to return to Hungarian affairs. After all, the blog’s stated purpose is to acquaint people with the politics, economy, culture, and history of Hungary.

I think that by now readers of Hungarian Spectrum are fully aware that the Orbán government is exceedingly pleased with the result and is looking forward to a close friendship between the two countries. I’m certain that Hungarian foreign ministry officials already envisage Viktor Orbán paying an early visit to the Trump White House. Maybe even a state dinner. Wouldn’t that be splendid?

But let’s get back to Hungarian reality, which is not without its troubles for Viktor Orbán and his closest entourage. The Hungarian prime minister might act high and mighty in parliament when asked about one of his closest associates, Antal Rogán, whose luxurious life style reeks of ill-gotten gains. But Rogán’s activities are symptomatic of wider problems. For instance, the “business activities” of the president of Hungary’s central bank, György Matolcsy, funneled through phony “foundations,” and his “generosity” toward his friends and family, from public funds, haven’t helped the reputation of the Orbán government. By now the majority of the population considers it rotten to the core.

Hardly a day goes by without one of the few remaining independent internet news sites unearthing a new scandal. Just today 444.hu published an excellent piece of investigative journalism showing that the Pénzügyi Szervezetek Állami Felügyelete (PSZÁF), the Hungarian equivalent of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Hungarian National Bank, which incorporated it in September 2013, must have had knowledge of Quaestor’s Ponzi scheme for at least 15 years before the brokerage firm collapsed in March 2015. I provided details of the scandal earlier.

Another story that doesn’t want to die concerns Ghaith Pharaon, a wealthy Saudi businessman who has been a fugitive from justice for the last 15 years at least. I covered the story about three weeks ago, but since then an awful lot of new information has come to light, which I will try to summarize briefly.

First of all, the confusion in government circles about the status of Pharaon is indescribable. Yesterday Index devoted a lengthy article to recounting the range of explanations coming from various government offices about why a fugitive from justice had received a Hungarian visa. The same confusion exists when officials try to explain Pharaon’s exact relationship to Viktor Orbán and his family. These explanations more often than not contradict one another. Some most likely have nothing to do with reality. János Lázár is especially prone to inventing stories for his weekly press conferences. I will not bore readers with these attempts to mislead the public.

On the other hand, I think it is important to note that Pharaon’s business activities were not confined to buying expensive real estate in Hungary from a firm connected to Viktor Orbán’s son-in-law, István Tiborcz. MOL, the Hungarian oil company, also had business dealings with Ghaith Pharaon through Pakistan Oil Fields Ltd. The deal was sealed only in April 2016. And a couple of days ago RTL Klub learned that the ministry of foreign affairs and trade, which owns Magyar Nemzeti Kereskedőház/MNK (Hungarian National Trading House), which is designed to encourage and smooth the way for ventures of Hungarian businessmen in different parts of the world, broke its contract with one of Pharaon’s Hungarian companies, Pharaon Gamma Kft. MNK naturally denied that the move had anything to do with the cloud over Pharaon.

The Artemy used by Lőrinc Mészáros

The Artemy used by Lőrinc Mészáros

Meanwhile, back in August Magyar Narancs learned about a 35m luxury yacht docked in the Zadar harbor in Croatia, most likely rented by Lőrinc Mészáros. Of course, it was a juicy story that the former pipefitter, Orbán’s front man, not only has a luxury villa on the Adriatic coast but also enjoys the good life on a yacht with a four-member crew on deck. But the story became truly interesting in November when the same reporters discovered that on August 4 Mészáros’s yacht was anchored in the harbor of Split. And behold, Ghaith Pharaon’s famous Le Pharaon luxury yacht, on which he spends most of his days, just happened to be docked right next to it. This was a most unlikely coincidence because, as the reporters found out, Le Pharaon had not visited Split in the three years prior.

Ghaith Pharaonás famous Le Pharaon

Ghaith Pharaon’s famous Le Pharaon

But this is not the end of the story. At the beginning of August Viktor Orbán disappeared for at least a week. The assumption was that he was on vacation. Zsolt Gréczy, the spokesman for DK, inquired from the prime minister’s office about the whereabouts of Viktor Orbán. He was told by Bertalan Havasi, director of the prime minister’s press office, that he was unable to provide any information regarding the prime minister’s holiday plans. Now that Magyar Narancs discovered the strange “coincidence” of the two yachts next to each other, DK suspects that it wasn’t so much a rendezvous between the pipefitter and the “professor,” as Orbán called Pharaon, but a high-level business meeting between the Hungarian prime minister and the wanted man. Today, although the prime minister’s office still hasn’t revealed where Viktor Orbán was on August 4, it claimed that “Viktor Orbán hasn’t even gotten near Split this year.” I doubt that this denial will satisfy the increasingly suspicious public.

And now let’s move on to a slightly different aspect of the Orbán-Pharaon relationship. Orbán in parliament admitted that he had met “Professor Pharaon” at a dinner party given by the Budapest representative of Jordan where Pharaon was the guest of honor. And now comes Mátyás Eörsi, former chair of the foreign affairs committee of the Hungarian parliament and undersecretary in the ministry of foreign affairs between 1994 and 1998. After hearing the story of Orbán’s meeting with the “professor,” he became suspicious. First of all, it is extremely rare for a prime minister to accept a dinner invitation from a representative of a foreign country. It is even less likely that he would accept such an invitation from the honorary consul of a country that doesn’t even have an embassy in Budapest. Economic relations between the two countries are practically nonexistent. Jordanian exports to Hungary amount to 0.04%, while Hungarian goods going to Jordan are only 0.15% of total trade. Surely, Eörsi argues, the prime minister’s acceptance of this dinner invitation had nothing to do with affairs of state.

Eörsi became even more suspicious when he tried to find out details of direct Jordanian investment in Hungary and discovered that, in the case of Jordan, this is “confidential information.” Normally such investment figures are readily available to the public. On the basis of his research Eörsi suspects, first, that the dinner was organized for the sole purpose of giving Orbán an opportunity to meet Pharaon in person without arousing suspicion and, second, that the subject of their meeting was of a private nature. As for the confidentiality of Jordanian investments the answer is simple enough. Pharaon’s front man is a Jordanian lawyer who is behind the nine Hungarian real estate purchases that have been sealed so far. Surely, the Jordanian partner doesn’t want to reveal details of Pharaon’s purchases, which were most likely acquired on the cheap in exchange for some benefits to the Hungarian partners. I find Eörsi’s hypotheses convincing.

November 15, 2016

The Orbán government stands fast at home and abroad

At home

Viktor Orbán was expected to have a difficult time in parliament today. It was one of those times that the prime minister has to answer questions. He cannot pass the unpleasant task on to one of his ministers or even to undersecretaries. All three opposition spokesmen wanted the prime minister to say something about Index’s revelations concerning Antal Rogán’s suspicious business activities which, on the surface at least, seem to involve kickbacks and money laundering.

Opportunities to confront the prime minister directly are rare, and therefore each opposition party should designate its best person to pose the question. I’m afraid MSZP’s choice of László Varga wasn’t wise. His “witticism”—if you can call it that—about Antal Rogán’s inability to see reality from his helicopter and the size of his apartment fell flat. For Orbán, who can shine in such a situation, Varga’s poorly formulated question was easy to answer and counter. Orbán never uttered Rogán’s name but instead reminded the socialists of the days when the MSZP-sponsored hunger marches were organized by “an opulent euro millionaire,” a reference to a high-level MSZP politician who was discovered to have 200 million forints worth of euros in an Austrian bank.

Bernadett Szél, co-chair of LMP, was a great deal more specific. First, she recalled all the lies Rogán told about the residency bonds and about his relationship to Balázs Kertész. Szél specifically wanted to know how long Antal Rogán can remain a minister. She reminded Orbán that he as prime minister is responsible for the composition of his government and therefore it is he who must take responsibility for the behavior of his ministers.

This question couldn’t be sidestepped. Orbán had to give a more or less straight answer. His reply: “I don’t have anything to do with political bluster and political tabloid sensations. I am interested only in performance within the government. Whatever has been happening to Antal Rogán so far only strengthens his position. Don’t think that these accusations shatter us or that they force us to think of them at all. I consider the accusations no more than infantile sham which I simply don’t take seriously. If one word of this affair were true you would have filed charges already.”

Viktor Orbán today in the Parliament

Viktor Orbán in parliament today

Finally, György Szilágyi of Jobbik rose and listed all the lies Rogán uttered in the last few days. He inquired why Orbán as prime minister tolerates this. Orbán pretty much repeated what he said to Szél: “These are political sham attacks that I don’t take seriously. Every attack I have heard so far only increases my trust in the minister.” Orbán also cleverly used this opportunity to bolster his defense of Rogán by pointing out that the attacks are no so much against his minister as against himself and his government. His final words to Szilágy were: “a politician calling another politician a liar is not very original.”

So, for the time being Rogán’s position is secure. He has been an indispensable associate who, by the look of things, brought billions of euros into the coffers not only of the country but most likely also of Fidesz, in addition to enriching himself. Orbán at the moment thinks so little of the strength of the opposition that he believes that he can withstand all the charges. Most likely he is right.

Abroad

Hungarian papers barely mentioned an extraordinary dinner meeting of foreign ministers held on Sunday, which was inspired by German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. In light of the unexpected victory of Donald Trump, a man with no background in foreign affairs, Steinmeier thought it was important for the EU foreign ministers have a common policy when dealing with an unpredictable Washington. Federica Mogherini, the quasi foreign minister of the European Union, agreed and the meeting was scheduled.

It was rumored at the time the meeting was announced that Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó would not attend but would instead send one of his undersecretaries. It was an indication that Hungary, unlike most of the EU member countries, didn’t believe the emergency meeting was necessary. Since Viktor Orbán, alone among European politicians, rooted for Trump, he hopes that the new president will look upon his regime favorably. That the foreign minister opted not to attend the emergency meeting should give Hungary another gold star in Trump’s book.

Three foreign ministers did not attend the Sunday meeting. Predictably, the UK’s Boris Johnson was absent. After all, Britain is on its way out of the Union and needs to be on especially good terms with the next president of the United States. France’s Jean-Marc Ayrault sent an envoy due to a scheduling conflict. And, as euobserver.com said, “Hungary’s pro-Trump Prime Minister Viktor Orbán also kept his top foreign envoy at home.”

Assessments of the Sunday dinner meeting vary. According to critics, it was far too early for the foreign ministers to get together since we know practically nothing about Trump’s foreign policy objectives. Mogherini, on the other hand, declared the meeting a success, saying that the foreign ministers agreed “to engage with the incoming administration even from this very first week of transition,” meaning right away.

Meanwhile, Szijjártó decided to speak up and explain Hungary’s position. He found “the hysteria caused by the US presidential elections that swept through the European political elite pathetic and at the same time amusing.” Hungary will not take part in this hysteria because it considers Trump’s election good news. The Hungarian government finds the president-elect’s idea to stop “democracy export” beneficial to the world.

It should be noted that Viktor Orbán’s Visegrád 4 friends decided not to follow in the footsteps of their pugnacious Hungarian friend. I wonder whether there was any consultation among the four countries ahead of the Sunday dinner meeting. I suspect there was, but that Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic don’t want any more open confrontations with the rest of the European countries. They gave the EU a hard enough time on the refugee issue and don’t feel like sticking their necks out for Donald Trump, who may be courting Russia at the expense of Eastern Europe.

November 14, 2016

The Orbán government’s corruption unveiled by investigative journalists

Index published an extraordinary piece of investigative journalism on November 11, written by András Dezső, Szabolcs Panyi, and Nikita Hava. The first two reporters are well known for their hard-hitting stories about Jobbik and Fidesz. The third person, who appears on Facebook as Hava Nikita Vladimirovics, calls himself “egy ruszki Magyarországon.” He is well versed in Russian-Hungarian affairs.

The team has been looking into Antal Rogán’s shady business ventures for about a year. As we know, investigative journalism is an expensive affair and Hungarian media outlets are far too poor to undertake such ambitious projects on their own. But thanks to the financial assistance of Transparency International Magyarország and Független Médiaközpont (Independent Media Center), plus of course a lot of hard work, these three young journalists did a bang-up job. I should add that for the Georgian aspects of this complicated corruption case Tazo Kupreishvili, editor-in-chief of News.On.ge, assisted the Hungarian team.

The article is a detailed account of the close working relationship between Balázs Kertész, a lawyer who has been making a concerted effort to stay out of public view, and Antal Rogán, currently the number 3 man in the Orbán government. His job title, minister in charge of the prime minister’s cabinet office, is intentionally meaningless. His real task is to spend government money on Fidesz propaganda. He was responsible for funding the anti-immigrant campaign, including staging the referendum. Rogán has long been suspected of being corrupt. But between 2006 and 2014, when he was mayor of Budapest’s posh District V, he gained the reputation of being one of the most corrupt officials in the Orbán administration.

If the relationship between Lőrinc Mészáros and Viktor Orbán is often described as that of a mafia boss and his front man and if the Simicska-Orbán alliance was more like a business partnership, with Simicska acting as a financial adviser, the Kertész-Rogán alliance is a combination of the two. According to the authors, Balázs Kertész is the person who came up with all the schemes that made Rogán (and I assume Kertész as well) a very rich man.

Balázs Kertész at Antal Rogán's inauguration of minister

Balázs Kertész at Antal Rogán’s inauguration as minister

Although stories about Rogán’s more than shady real estate deals have been circulating for only a few years, he began his unsavory career much earlier. His and Kertész’s names first came up in 2003 when the K&H Equities scandal surfaced. A stockbroker named Attila Kulcsár was running a Ponzi scheme. Fidesz, then in opposition, tried to dump the whole scandal on the socialists, but it turned out that several people close to Fidesz were also involved. Among them, Antal Rogán (age 29) and Balázs Kertész (age 27), whose names were found in Kulcsár’s VIP list. Although the members of the parliamentary committee that investigated the case had questions about the two men, thanks to Péter Polt, the chief prosecutor, their names were dropped from the list of suspects.

This early brush with the law was nothing in comparison to what happened in District V. Balázs Kertész was the first to become a member of the district council. Soon enough he was followed by two of his friends from Fidelitas days, Antal Rogán and András Puskás. (Fidelitas is Fidesz’s youth organization, a place where aspiring young politicians learn the tools of the trade.) In no time the trio was running the show, despite the fact that the mayor was a socialist. In 2006 Rogán decided to run for district mayor against the socialist Pál Steiner and won easily. By that time Kertész was deeply involved in the district’s finances. Apparently he was the one who came up with the idea of selling expensive pieces of real estate at below market prices. He designed the transactions in such a way that neither he nor Rogán would suffer any legal consequences from cheating the district. The buyers, of course, had to pay a “surcharge”/kickback, apparently thousands of euros. How much of this money went to Kertész we don’t know.

Kertész also seems to be behind Rogán’s lucrative residency bond business. After Kertész left politics in 2010, he returned to the prestigious law firm where he began his legal career. A couple of years later, most likely in 2013, he joined a much less distinguished law firm. It was this firm that got the job of handling the administrative work for the applicants for residency bonds. Their fee was €5,000, and we are talking about 2,000-3,000 applicants so far. Of course, we don’t know whether, in addition, the Kertész-Rogán duo received kickbacks from the intermediaries abroad who got €50,000 per transaction. I suspect yes.

The most spectacular achievement of the Index team was the discovery of two videos. One proved that Balázs Kertész, Antal Rogán, and Árpád Habony met, despite Rogán’s denial. The other showed three highly-placed Georgian businessmen discussing a power plant to be financed by the Hungarian Eximbank. The parties to this discussion were the representative of the Bank of Georgia in Hungary, a Georgian-Israeli businessman, and the former prime minister of Georgia (2009-2012), Nika Gilauri, who earlier had served as minister of energy and minister of finance.

Unfortunately the meeting took place on a very noisy street, so not everything is audible. It is, however, clear that 5% of the Eximbank loan for the power plant has to be paid to Balázs Kertész. It is also obvious from the partial transcript that the money should be paid in advance in order “for them to start working.” I assume the work entails convincing Eximbank to grant the loan. The man who most likely has that job is András Puskás, deputy CEO of business operations at Eximbank, who used to be Rogán’s right-hand man and deputy in District V. So far no decision has been reached on the Georgians’ request for $68 million. And after these revelations, I doubt that they will see a penny of the promised loan. Whether Kertész has already banked over $3 million on this deal is unknown.

From Index’s article as well as some other commentaries we get a sense of how Kertész and Rogán have reacted to the probe. First, Kertész must have known for some time that journalists were after him. As the investigative team noted, “the closer we got to him, the more evidence of his existence disappeared.”

Second, there is a very good possibility that Kertész and Rogán laid a trap to discredit whatever Péter Juhász, Együtt’s sleuth, and the journalists might uncover. They enlisted a couple of “reliable” Fidesz sources to claim, independently of one another, that Balázs Kertész had been arrested by TEK and that many hundreds of forints were also impounded. The story was, of course, a hoax. If newspapers reported a false story, it would cast doubt on any subsequent stories about Kertész they might publish. At least one Hungarian newspaper fell into the trap.

Third, it is hard to believe how stupidly Antal Rogán tries to cover up his misdeeds. He thinks that if he denies that something ever happened it will simply go away. He denied his helicopter trip (documented by Népszabadság) and in this instance denied his meetings with Habony and Kertész (where again, hard evidence proves the contrary).

Fourth, perhaps his stupidest move once the Index story broke was to remove the recent picture showing Kertész at his inauguration as minister. For such an occasion a politician can normally invite his family members and a very small number of his closest friends. By removing the picture he practically admitted his guilt.

The most important question still remains. How much does Viktor Orbán know about all this? He has stuck with Rogán through thick and thin in the last couple of years, so my suspicion is that he is privy to everything.

November 13, 2016

When a love affair is no private matter: The case of György Matolcsy

Until very recently the Hungarian media had left politicians’ private lives alone. In the last few months, however, there has been a decided change in attitude. I think it was 888.hu, a government-inspired internet site that was supposed to be hip and capture the imagination of the younger generation of right-wingers, that broke with this hands-off policy. The editor-in-chief, the notorious Gábor G. Fodor of Nézőpont Intézet, decided to publish nude photos of the wife of MSZP party chairman József Tóbiás. A few weeks later Ripost.hu, also a government-sponsored tabloid site, came out with a juicy story about János Volner, a Jobbik MP, who was found behind some bushes with a woman friend in Pécel, a suburb of Budapest. What the two were doing in the bushes was widely discussed at the time, especially in the pro-government media. So, thanks to the newly created pro-government tabloids, the taboo has been broken.

The story of György Matolcsy’s divorce and his liaison with a 31-year-old woman, Zita Vajda, has been garnering a lot of attention. The media isn’t interested in their romantic attachment. Rather, they view the story as further proof of the incredible corruption that surrounds the Hungarian National Bank (MNB) under the leadership of György Matolcsy.

Regular readers of Hungarian Spectrum are only too familiar with Matolcsy’s generosity toward his friends and family—and his family is large since there are a lot of Matolcsys. He is especially generous toward his lover, for whom he is divorcing his wife of thirty years. In fact, Matolcsy is taking care of Zita’s mother as well. It is easy to be generous with someone else’s money, especially when that money comes straight from Hungary’s central bank. Matolcsy has a track record of using bank funds for questionable purposes. The bank bought some very expensive real estate, and it transferred an incredible amount of public money from the bank to private foundations it set up, which I described as a perfect money laundering device.

Népszabadság stumbled upon the case of Matolcsy’s liaison with Zita Vajda by accident. What the paper was investigating was her fabulously high salary. She was making more money than a department head, and her job was merely to prepare and organize Matolcsy’s foreign travel and negotiations. When Matolcsy became chairman of the central bank in 2013, he fired a number of staff members, including well-qualified economists, and replaced them with his favorite associates from the ministry of the national economy. Zita Vajda was among them. Vajda’s very high salary (1,730,000 ft.) was undoubtedly the subject of gossip, and I assume that one of the employees convinced Népszabadság to investigate. It took a little while because the bank tried to stall, but eventually the paper got the information with the following sentence tacked on at the end: “György Matolcsy’s personal life and his divorce is a private matter.” Was this a mistake or was the information about his divorce, which was not publicly known, intentionally leaked? I don’t know, but it supplied another incentive to pursue the matter. And the deeper Népszabadság dug, the more dirt it uncovered.

In addition to her job at the bank, in 2014 Zita Vajda was made a board member of the bank’s Pallas Athene Domus Innovationis (PADI) foundation. A year later she became a member of the board of a corporation created by the same PADI. Népszabadság calculates that the salary of a board member of one of these foundations is 555,000 ft./month. Soon enough it became known that Zita Vajda’s mother, Mrs. Péter Vajda, an employee of a public accounting firm, takes care of the accounts of all six foundations. The company, thanks to Zita Vajda’s relationship to Matolcsy, received approximately 27 million forints from the foundations in 2015 alone. The company’s total revenue that year was only 62 million forints. Thus, almost half of the public accounting firm’s revenue came from the bank’s foundations.

Just to keep the record straight, Zita Vajda no longer works for the bank. I guess it was deemed advisable to remove her from the limelight because of the divorce and impending marriage. Ripost recently reported that the Matolcsys separated months ago and that divorce papers had already been filed. After Vajda’s departure from the bank, Matolcsy made sure that she would not suffer any financial loss. Thus, in addition to her two board member jobs, she became deputy director of the Pallas Athene Geopolitikai Alapítvány (PAGEO) and also a “researcher” in the PAGEO Research Institute. Her income from these two new jobs amounts to 1.2 million ft. /month, which doesn’t quite match the money she made at the bank. But if you add up her income from the four different sources, her salary may be as high as 2.3 million forints a month.

Of these four jobs the most intriguing is her “research position” at PAGEO to the tune of 600,000 ft. /month. As far as we know, she spent two months in India where she studied yoga. In fact, in her spare time as “international secretary” to Matolcsy, she gave yoga lessons to interested bank employees. Her knowledge of India certainly doesn’t merit 600,000 ft. per month. The top expert on India, a university professor, makes only 380,000 ft. Népszabadság discovered one short article online that she wrote about Dharavit, one of the largest slums in Mumbai. But she is no India expert. The job was created for her because of her relationship to Matolcsy. After all, the happy new couple will need plenty of money to maintain a life style becoming the Hungarian central bank chairman and his wife.

The lady seems talented--in yoga

The lady may be talented–in yoga

Matolcsy, we know, is attracted to certain Eastern beliefs/superstitions. For instance, it seems that Matolcsy believes in the ill effects of certain numbers. The number 8 has ominous consequences, and therefore he changed the official address of the bank from Szabadság tér 8-9 to Szabadság tér 9. People claim that certain rooms inside the building had to be renumbered to avoid the number 8.

Another hypothesis that’s floating about in Budapest is that Hungary’s central bank is run by a man who accepts the Tibetan Buddhist belief that there are four days in the year when positive or negative actions can be multiplied ten million times. The best description I could find of this belief came from the Kopan Monastery in Nepal. Since these days are calculated on the basis of the lunar calendar, the dates vary from year to year.

Upon hearing stories about Matolcsy and the Buddhist ten-million multiplier days, the journalists at Népszabadság began checking the calendar of important bank announcements and came to the conclusion that there might be something to the story. The article correlated these special days with important bank announcements. It is hard to know, without going over all the important decisions that have been made in the last three years, whether there is any truth to this hypothesis. I did check the dates to ascertain what day of the week we are talking about, and I found two announcements that had been made on Saturday, an odd day to pick.

Buddha stature from Sarnath / 4th century

Buddha statue from Sarnath / 4th century

Soon after the article on the strange happenings in the central bank was published, the bank’s spokesman denied the allegations and called it absurd, pointing out that since March 2013 the Hungarian National Bank has published 818 news bulletins and 455 publications. Therefore there has been hardly a day when the bank didn’t make some kind of a statement. Yes, the hypothesis may sound strange, but by now one can imagine almost anything about the affairs of the bank under the leadership of Matolcsy, who some years ago claimed that all Hungarian children, just like the Japanese, are born with a red spot on their fannies which, of course, was nonsense.

In the wake of the revelations of Népszabadság, the pro-government papers have been silent. Matolcsy and his girlfriend have disappeared from sight, and Zita shut down her yoga blog in a great hurry. The supervisory board headed by a Fidesz politician claims that it has no jurisdiction over Zita Vajda’s salary. We can be pretty sure that everything will go on as if it nothing happened in MNB, which the author of an editorial renamed Magyar Nemzeti Budoár (Hungarian National Boudoir). Another editorial, which appeared in Magyar Nemzet titled “Sötét verem” (Dark pit), emphasized that although the paper is not fond of tabloid stories and the romance between Zita Vajda and György Matolcsy is a private matter, there are times when a love affair loses its private quality. This happens when public money is involved. According to the author, “Matolcsy for a very long time has owed the public an explanation of his sundry questionable affairs.” And if he misses the opportunity to do so, “he shouldn’t be surprised if many people think that love is not only a dark pit but might also hide corruption.”

Perhaps the best line came from Zoltán Bodnár, former deputy chairman of the central bank, who has a good sense of humor. At the time of the upheaval over the establishment of private foundations by the Hungarian National Bank, Matolcsy steadfastly maintained that with the transfer of the money to private foundations “it had lost its public character.” So, when a few days ago a reporter asked Bodnár what he thought about the national bank under Matolcsy, Bodnár quipped: “it has lost its character as a central bank.”

September 15, 2016

The Orbán government’s colossal swindle: the residency bonds

It’s time to return to one of the largest scams the Orbán government has come up with to date: the sale of “residency bonds.” The project was launched in 2013. It allowed a citizen of a non-European Union country to “buy” a resident permit for a duration of five years by purchasing €250,000 worth of Hungarian government bonds. In 2015 that amount was raised to €300,000.

Many countries, including the United States, offer residency permits to foreigners willing to invest substantial amounts of money. Such an arrangement might be justified on such economic grounds as job creation and an incentive for the influx of foreign capital.

The Hungarian scheme bears no resemblance to the practices of other countries. The sale of residency bonds creates “instant cash” that is spent as soon as it is received and that will have to be paid back, together with the accrued interest, in five years. The sale of 3,874 residency bonds over the last two and a half years has brought at best a minimal benefit to the national economy, at worst a loss. That Hungary has sold so many residency bonds is understandable because this is about the cheapest way for a person to become a lawful resident of one of the member states of the European Union, and hence to be able to conduct business anywhere in the EU.

Hungarian residency bond purchases have another unusual feature. The prospective buyers of the bonds do not manage the transaction directly by dealing with the Hungarian administration. Their only contact is an agent designated by the government. And on paper at least these agents seem to be the only real financial beneficiaries of the sale of the bonds. For every bond package they sell they receive between €45,000 and €60,000 as a processing fee, charged to the purchaser. The other peculiarity of this transaction is that agents don’t pass on the full €300,000 to the Államadósság Kezelő Központ (Center for the Management of Government Debt) because they receive the bonds from the government at a discount of no less than 2%. So between the processing fee they charge and the discount they receive, agents get between €74,000 and €80,000 per bond package. As Népszabadság rightly pointed out, after five years the purchaser of the bonds will gain about as much on the deal as the agent does within a few weeks.

The whole scheme smacks of corruption. Most likely the people who were chosen to be agents were ready to share these incredible sums of money with members of the Hungarian government or Fidesz party leaders. Currently there are four such agents, of whom only one is registered in Budapest. The others operate out of Malta, Cyprus, and Singapore.

Source: Index

Source: Index

Also on the receiving end is a Budapest law firm which, according to Tamás Wiedemann of Magyar Nemzet, must have made almost five billion forints in the last three years. Heading the firm is Kristóf Kosik, who is a close acquaintance of Antal Rogán, who as the chairman of the parliamentary committee on the economy is the mastermind behind the whole scheme. Kosik’s law firm is the only one that can represent the foreign applicants at the Bevándorlási és Állampolgársági Hivatal (Office of Immigration and Citizenship). The Kosik Ügyvédi Iroda receives €5,000 per application. Since 3,784 applications have been approved since 2013, Kosik’s law firm must have earned €18,920,000 in three years from this little business.

Népszabadság also calculated the amount of money the Hungarian government is losing on these residency bonds. The economists who looked at the numbers came up with the figure of €17.4 million to date. The reason for the loss is that in 2013 the government fixed the interest rate they would pay on the bonds at 2.46%. In the beginning the Hungarian government did okay because the interest rate in the open market was almost 5%. So they were getting cheap instant cash. But by June 2014 the interest rate on euro bonds had dropped to under 2.4%, which was lower than the guaranteed rate on the residency bonds. By now the interest rate in the open market is around 0.5%, while the Hungarian government is still paying the rate fixed in 2013.

While the Hungarian government just declared a “total mobilization” in preparation for a referendum against the refugees and has been carrying out a massive campaign against outsiders, it has quietly allowed 3,784 individuals and their families to settle in Hungary. That may mean close to 16,000 individuals, who come mostly from China, Russia, and the rich Middle Eastern countries. Vetting these individuals is extremely superficial. An applicant makes an appearance before one of the agents and gives details about himself and his past activities. On the basis of this information the Hungarian authorities have 30 days to conduct an investigation. Once that is done, the happy new resident and family can settle in Hungary and travel and conduct business throughout the European Union.

As the result, it is likely that some unsavory characters have managed to settle in the European Union through the Hungarian residency program. The same Tamás Wiedemann who found out about the monopoly Kristóf Kosik’s law firm has on handling applications at the Office of Immigration also learned of at least one Russian, who had been convicted of tax fraud and was most likely a fugitive from justice, who easily managed to get permission to settle in Hungary. It was done in the following manner. Each applicant must produce an “erkölcsi bizonyítvány” (certificate of good conduct). But the Office of Immigration accepts the certificate of good conduct even if it comes from a third country. Thus the Russian fugitive from justice first went to Saint Kitts and Nevis, where he obtained the necessary document attesting to his good conduct and stating that he had had no run-in with the law.

Naturally, the government’s reaction was denial. Csaba Dömötör, undersecretary in Antal Rogán’s Cabinet Office of the Prime Minister or, as people on the street call it, the propaganda ministry, announced that the article “is based on frivolous suppositions and calumnies.” He added that it is difficult to take the story seriously because Wiedemann didn’t give the name of the individual. Magyar Nemzet’s journalist pointed out in an interview on ATV yesterday that he is forbidden by law to reveal the name of the individual, and he would also have transgressed the law on securities if he had given details.

Rogán’s propaganda ministry might be cocky but Mihály Varga, minister of the national economy, was much more cautious and told ATV that perhaps the law governing the rules of residency requirements can be changed “if necessary.”

September 7, 2016

 

Plans for a system of Fidesz party courts?

The tightening political stranglehold of the Fidesz government on Hungarian institutions and society in general leads many people to the conclusion that this regime cannot be defeated in a democratic election. Even if the opposition were united, the whole system has been so devilishly designed that one cannot escape its deadly embrace. But occasionally there are rays of hope. Here and there the Hungarian judicial system hands down decisions that allow opposition politicians and independent journalists to at least uncover some illegal financial transactions, shady business practices, or obvious corruption cases. These revelations rarely gain traction because Fidesz’s very own prosecution office makes sure that there will be no consequences. Still, the publicity surrounding these cases greatly annoys the powers that be. And so they decided to do something to remedy the situation.

One of the first acts of the Orbán government was a total reorganization of the judiciary system, about which I wrote extensively in 2011 and after. In April 2011 the government lowered the retirement age of judges from 70 to 62, a decision that affected about 10% of all judges. These vacant positions could then be filled with judges who would presumably be grateful to the government that assisted in their promotion. Then, by renaming the Supreme Court Kúria, they managed to get rid of the chief justice and replace him with one of their own. Finally, they set up an entirely new body called Országos Bírósági Hivatal (OBH) whose head, appointed for nine years, is Tünde Handó, a good friend of the Orbáns and the wife of József Szájer, Fidesz EP MP and one of the original founders of Fidesz. She alone decides on appointments and also on the venues of “delicate” cases against former politicians or government officials.

Yet it seems that Orbán didn’t do a thorough enough job. The remaining judges are not all puppets, and occasionally they rule against the government. For example, when the Hungarian National Bank had to hand over all the information about the expenditures of the five or six “foundations” György Matolcsy established. Or, when the court ruled against the government for not allowing Lajos Simicska’s Közgép to bid on government projects. Such interference in the affairs of the government is something Orbán cannot tolerate.

So, here is a new idea: to set up an entirely separate judicial system that would deal exclusively with matters pertaining to the various branches of the administration. Not that there were no judges who specialized in such cases. In fact, in 2013 special courts were set up to handle labor disputes and cases brought against the government or one of its related institutions. But these courts were part of the traditional court system.

What makes this new “reform” especially suspect is that, according to current plans, half of the “judges” would be “instant judges” who have at least ten years of experience in public service. Most real judges, after working for years in the judicial system, have been socialized as independent arbiters responsible only to their own consciences. On the other hand, a civil servant is by definition an obedient employee who is anything but an independent actor. The two mindsets can hardly be reconciled.

As you can imagine, the reaction was one of outrage. When the question of political motive was raised at János Lázár’s regular Thursday press conference, he naturally denied it and added that Tünde Handó’s OBH supports the idea. Not so. A day later 444.hu summarized a 32-page letter written by Handó in which she severely criticized the idea of setting up a separate court system for administrative cases.

As 444.hu pointed out, Handó cannot be accused of being overly critical of the Orbán government, which she has faithfully served for the last six years. Yet she seems to have sensed the political intent behind the move when she noted that “especially important economic and political cases” will end up in these courts. She announced that “there is no need to set up a separate administrative judicial system” with its own high court. She considers “the large number of professionals coming from the executive branch” to be a threat to the independence of the judiciary. In fact, Handó sees constitutional problems with the proposed legislation. Bertalan Tóth, leader of the MSZP parliamentary delegation, expressed the same objection, though a bit more forcefully. He compared these new administrative courts to a case in which “the accused could pick the members of the jury from among his family members.” I think this is an apt description of the situation.

László Trócsányi, minister of justice since 2014, is leading the government’s fight for a separate administrative court system. In an interview with Népszabadság, he insisted that setting up such a system has been in the works ever since 2014 when he became minister. He and his ministry have been working on this system for the last two years, a claim that, if true, would undermine the position that the government decided to act as a result of the embarrassing setbacks it suffered at the hands of regular judges. Considering that the administration wants to introduce the new system only in the spring of 2018, I suspect that Trócsányi is not telling the truth. If he and his ministry had been working on the project for the last two years, it’s unlikely that the government would need another year and a half to launch it. He also tried to lull suspicions that most of the 100 judges who work on cases involving the administration would be fired by saying that they would remain. Eighty people will be added to their ranks. Since the government wants half of the judges to come from the civil service, I assume all 80 will be “instant judges” whose job will be to save the government from further embarrassments.

Trocsanyi2

Trócsányi’s interview with Népszabadság took place on September 2, and by now I see a slight change in his attitude. He is no longer as combative as he was four days ago. Today, talking to Inforádió, a conservative radio station specializing in politics, he kept repeating that it is not important to set up these courts as soon as possible. What is important is that “thinking begins about administrative procedure.” There can be discussions about the details, like structural solutions, but “as long as he is the minister he will not allow any backtracking on the control over the administration,” a statement that sounds ominous even if it’s not very clear.

To change the law Fidesz needs the support of two-thirds of the members of parliament. The government indicated that it would like to talk matters over with the leaders of the five parliamentary parties: Fidesz, KDNP (Christian Democrats), Jobbik, MSZP, and LMP. MSZP already indicated that they will not attend the meeting. Jobbik and LMP will be there, but they refuse to support the bill in its present form. Let’s hope they remain steadfast through all the bill’s eventual iterations. Otherwise they will endorse a Fidesz judiciary system designed to cover up the government’s criminal activities.

September 6, 2016

The latest revelations in the Roland Mengyi case

People unfamiliar with Viktor Orbán’s Hungary might think that I’m spending far too much time on the case of Roland Mengyi, a Fidesz MP. So what, they might say. They caught a politician who is a crook. Happens in the best of countries. What’s the big fuss?

Well, that’s not how things work in Hungary. The Orbán government has been in power for more than six years, during which the independent media reported on a raft of suspicious cases. Not once did the “independent” prosecutor’s office ask the president of the parliament to initiate proceedings to suspend a Fidesz MP’s immunity, even when such a request was warranted.

Yes, Hungary’s chief prosecutor is independent in the sense that he and his office are not subordinated to the ministry of justice, unlike in most European countries or the United States. That was not the case between 1867 and 1949. The prosecutor’s office was the judicial arm of the state. After 1990 a restoration of the old system was briefly discussed and rejected, for fear of government interference in the judiciary. Thus, Chief Prosecutor Péter Polt, an important ally of Viktor Orbán, is responsible to no one except, of course unofficially, the prime minister. He is a man of immense responsibility and power. He could theoretically topple Orbán’s corrupt regime or, being a faithful servant, keep it in power by burying all the embarrassing and even politically lethal cases.

Very often the prosecutor’s office doesn’t even start an investigation of cases reported to the police. In a few bigger cases they begin an investigation but the prosecutors find the cases too weak to go any further and drop them. Then, there are those cases when the prosecutor’s allegations are so poorly worded that the judges have no recourse but to acquit the accused.

The Mengyi case is testing the “see no evil” prosecutorial system. Péter Polt was forced to act. He had no choice once 168 Óra released the third installment of the story of Roland Mengyi and his accomplices. It reported that the National Tax and Customs Administration has a video on which one can see two of the accused men handing Mengyi a small plastic bag that might have contained the 5 million forints Mengyi demanded from them. An hour after this information hit the newsstands Polt wrote to László Kövér requesting that Mengyi’s immunity be lifted.

Mama Rosa, Italian restaurant, where the Roland Mengyi allegedly received the money

Mama Rosa, the Italian restaurant in Tiszaújváros, where Roland Mengyi allegedly received 5 million forints in cash

In this post I will concentrate on what we learned from the third installment of Attila Rajnai’s series on the Mengyi case, but before that I will try to clarify why the National Tax and Customs Administration/NAV is involved in this case since it has nothing whatsoever to do with tax fraud.

Initially, NAV was not investigating Mengyi but Márta F. of Tiszaújváros, an accountant whom the NAV investigators suspected of being involved in tax fraud by gaming the special tax status of employees of social cooperatives. These employees, who are disadvantaged, pay lower taxes and have lower social benefits payroll deductions than employees of ordinary businesses. Márta F.’s scheme was to change the status of employees of ordinary businesses to social cooperative employees. The scheme worked this way. The worker was let go by his employer and immediately hired by one of the social cooperatives, but in reality he worked in his old workplace except that his employer now hired him as a social cooperative worker with a reduced tax burden. Márta F. was apparently arranging these switches in status in such huge numbers that NAV investigators became suspicious and began their surveillance of her activities. Mengyi’s bad luck was that Tibor B. and Zsolt E., the two friends who turned to Mengyi for help, got in touch with Márta F., who was known as an expert in setting up social cooperatives. Thus their conversations with Márta F. were also recorded. These conversations prompted a second investigation that led to Mengyi.

So, what did the public learn from 168 Óra’s third installment? Plenty. One important piece of information is that if NAV investigators find a political thread in the course of their investigation, they have to report the case immediately to the prosecutor’s office. The prosecutor’s office can then, if the chief prosecutor so desires, stop the investigation altogether. In fact, Rajnai is aware of an earlier case where an important business partner of one of Viktor Orbán’s oligarchs was in trouble with NAV but the prosecutor’s office stopped the investigation. It is quite possible that the same thing happened in the Mengyi case because just when the investigators were ready to arrest the Fidesz MP, their superiors refused to give them permission to proceed.

Of course, the newly appointed NAV president, András Tállai, might have put an end to the investigation, especially since in one of the conversations Péter K., the middle man between Mengyi and the two applicants for the grant, tries to quell their fears by telling them not to worry because András Tállai and Roland Mengyi are “on very good terms.”

The other revelation of this third installment is that last fall someone in the ministry of human resources told Péter K. that NAV investigators had paid a visit to the ministry and that they should be careful because their telephone calls are being monitored. At the moment we don’t know who that person was, but Rajnai suspects that his name is known to the prosecutors. Because revealing such information to subjects of an investigation is a crime, this person is probably also in trouble.

As the network of corruption expands, another possible culprit is the owner of Public Sector Consulting Kft. (KSC), Sándor Holbok, whom I described earlier as an “ősfideszes” or “primordial member” of the party. Although at the moment only Szilvia B., an employee of the company, is in jail, Holbok was most likely fully aware of what was going on in the firm. In one of the conversations one can hear that Mengyi is in negotiation with the owner of KSC, discussing the financial details, meaning who will receive what portion of the 600 million.

Whoever interfered at the level of the ministry saved Mengyi from a much more serious charge. The tender was rewritten, and therefore the deal couldn’t proceed. As it stands, Mengyi and his co-conspirators are accused only of attempted fraud.

Now it is up to Péter Polt to contain the investigation to the smallest possible circle. If the investigation goes much further, it could reach high officials in the ministry of human resources and perhaps even in the prime minister’s office. After all, there are rumors that even undersecretaries might be part of the conspiracy to illegally acquire EU money. Szilvia B. talked about her close relationship with Nándor Csepreghy, deputy of János Lázár. I’m sure that Polt will do his best as usual. Maybe the whole thing will peter out and Roland Mengyi will be the only one who is charged. And if Mengyi is deemed to be critically important to the party, the prosecutor’s office will probably prepare a case so full of holes that he will get off.

August 20, 2016