Tag Archives: OLAF

Metro 4: The largest case of Hungarian fraud and corruption

Now that the complete OLAF report is available online, we can all settle down and try to read 103 pages of dense prose detailing “irregularities, fraud, corruption, and misappropriation of EU funds.” A five-member OLAF group began their investigation in January 2012 after the Court of Auditors and the Directorate General for Regional and Urban Policy of the European Commission contacted OLAF, asking the office to scrutinize the case. During the investigation, the OLAF staff got in touch with only the City of Budapest and Péter Medgyessy, prime minister of Hungary between 2002 and 2004, whose consulting firm worked for Alstom Transport S.A., one of the firms accused of wrongdoing.

The total cost of the project was €1,747,313,606, of which €696,490,000 came from the Cohesion Fund. According to OLAF’s calculation, “the financial impact on the Cohesion Fund is €227,881,690.”

The release of OLAF’s final report put an end to the political game Fidesz and the Orbán government had been playing with the document. János Lázár, head of the prime minister’s office, and his deputy, the honey-tongued Nándor Csepreghy, did their best to get as much political mileage from the affair as possible. Lázár intimated that an international socialist-liberal conspiracy was behind the corruption that occurred at the Metro 4 project. On another occasion, he claimed to have filed charges against Gábor Demszky, mayor of Budapest between 1990 and 2010, Csaba Horváth, deputy mayor between 2006 and 2009, and János Atkári, an adviser to Demszky. Csepreghy must have known that none of these people was mentioned in the document, but in a long interview at 888.hu he intimated that even Ferenc Gyurcsány, prime minister between 2004 and 2009, may have shared responsibility for the misappropriation of funds. A few days later he claimed that other politicians might also be implicated.

All this is just political fluff. What we know from the OLAF report is that the City of Budapest signed a contract in 2004 with Budapesti Közlekedési Vállalat (BKV), the city-owned transit authority, which was commissioned to implement the project. Most likely that was a major mistake, which led to a lot of difficulties later. Any project, especially such a large one as the construction of a metro, needs a general contractor who oversees the project. BKV’s staff was not equipped to coordinate the work, which led to innumerable hiccups during construction.

Throughout the project the Hungarian media, especially the online site Index, reported many suspicious cases of overspending. But these cases were actually small potatoes, like too many consulting firms and lawyers making millions for very little work. Although several such cases are described in the final report, the bulk of the money OLAF would now like to be returned came from serious irregularities during the acquisition of tenders by huge corporations.

According to OLAF, 96% of the “irregularities” occurred in contracts signed by six large firms: Siemens AG, the largest manufacturing and electronics company in Europe; Swietelsky, an Austrian construction company from Linz; Strabag, the largest construction company in Austria, based in Villach; a Hungarian company called Hídépítő Zrt., which as its name indicates builds bridges and roads; the BAMCO consortium (Vinci CGP, Strabag, Hídépítő Zrt); and Alstom, the French multinational company operating worldwide in rail transport, including the manufacture of metro trains.

I left Alstom to last because it was in regard to Alstom that OLAF got in touch with Péter Medgyessy, who received €600,000 in 2007-2008 from Alstom for two years of consulting. This payment occurred after Alstom had won the tender with apparently the worst offer. Medgyessy naturally claims that his consulting firm had nothing to do with the Alstom case, adding that it is a well-known fact that his relationship with Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány and the liberal SZDSZ leadership of the City of Budapest was strained. What his relationship with Gyurcsány had to do with BKV deciding to purchase overpriced Alstom cars is beyond me. I have no idea whether in a court of law Medgyessy would be found innocent or not, but in ethical terms his behavior was highly suspect.

Siemens, the German company which was in charge of electrical works, received 31.7 billion forints (€102,303,730) for the job. Since OLAF claims that Siemens most likely received inside information during the bidding process, the European Union wants the Hungarian government to pay back the whole amount. The same is true of Alstom’s 22.9 billion forint (€73,892,769) tender. BAMCO also won the tender in an irregular manner, and therefore the European Union demands the return of 8 billion forints (€25,817,360). The EU also demands 7.6 billion forints (€24,523,364) from Swietelsky, which was responsible for the interior of the metro stations. Strabag-Hídépítő, in charge of structural work on the station at Baross Square, received 3.7 billion forints for its work but because of procurement irregularities 2.5 billion forints (€8,067,751) should be returned.

Another politician who, although not mentioned by name, was most likely involved in the metro case is László Puch, former financial director of MSZP, whose company Media Magnet Kft. just purchased the ailing Népszava and Vasárnapi Hírek. Media Magnet, according to the OLAF report, received 331 million forints (€1,068,110) from Siemens for advertising. The report notes that “this company was in charge of the campaign of the political party which was in a decision-making position in the case of Metro 4.” In 2010 Index reported that BKV ordered all sorts of superfluous studies from Media Magnet on such things as, for example, the state of the cable television market. There is a strong suspicion that some of this money ended up in MSZP’s coffers.

The biggest culprits will most likely be found among the representatives of the named companies and those BKV officials who were in contact with them. There’s no question that the guilty parties should be punished, but judging from the outcomes of earlier corruption cases I have my doubts that we will ever hear about all the dirt that OLAF unearthed. I’m also pretty sure that Fidesz will try its darndest to drag high-level politicians into the morass around BKV.

I see that Gábor Demszky will be represented by György Magyar, one of the “star lawyers” in the country. On February 3 Magyar announced on ATV that Demszky had signed only three contracts during the many years of construction. One was the contract between the city and the government in which the parties agreed that 79% of the construction cost would be borne by the government and the rest by the City of Budapest. The second contract dealt with a loan the City had to obtain for the project. The third was the contract that gave full authority to BKV for the implementation of the project.

Fidesz naturally wants to have a parliamentary investigation into the case, which will lead to further accusations on both sides. If Hungary had a decent prosecutor’s office and an independent chief prosecutor, it should undertake a speedy, thorough, unbiased investigation of the case. Unfortunately, this is the last thing we can hope for under the present circumstances.

February 6, 2017

The perils of being an opposition politician in Hungary

I don’t know whether I will be able to make a coherent story out of the mess the Orbán government most likely has purposefully created regarding the report of the European Commission’s European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) on irregularities—fraud and possible corruption—in connection with the construction of Budapest’s fourth metro line (M4). The report covered the period between 2006 and 2015.

Although the Hungarian government received the OLAF report—or its English-language summary, the Hungarian public heard about it only from the English-language news site Politico. It didn’t take long before the Fidesz government and the Fidesz-led City of Budapest, on the one hand, and the politicians of the socialist-liberal government of the pre-2010 period, on the other, were at each other’s throats. The government claimed that practically all the financial wrongdoings were committed before 2010 while the opposition politicians accused the Orbán government of making political hay out of the case while refusing to make the report public. The administration claimed that it has no authority to release OLAF’s findings.

Most likely because of the holiday season at the end of the year, for about a month not much happened. Then, on January 16, János Lázár officially announced that he will file a complaint against Gábor Demszky (SZDSZ), mayor of Budapest between 1990 and 2010, Csaba Horváth (MSZP), deputy mayor between 2006 and 2009, and János Atkári, a highly respected economist who for many years served as Gábor Demszky’s financial adviser. That announcement started an avalanche of often conflicting articles in the Hungarian media.

A day after Lázár’s announcement, his deputy Nándor Csepreghy gave a detailed press conference dealing with the Metro4 corruption case. The government found MTI’s report of that press conference so important that it was immediately translated into English. We learned from Csepreghy that the Fidesz government had had its own suspicions of fraud surrounding the project even before. The OLAF report only confirmed these suspicions.

Csepreghy disclosed a few relevant facts that might help our understanding of the case. For example, he revealed that the investigators of OLAF conducted interviews with 50 individuals, “including the competent executives and managers” of the Budapest Transit Authority (BKV) and the City of Budapest. In addition, Csepreghy named a few companies that had been involved in the construction of the metro line as possible culprits. He also gave the initials of certain individuals heading large public and private companies. Finally, he said that “there are dozens of actors mentioned in the report who were politicians, were associated with the realm of politics, or operated as semi-public actors.” Finally, he told the press that the “government’s legal advisers are currently looking into the possibility of disclosing the OLAF report to the public in its entirety, to which the Government is fully committed.”

Nándor Csepreghy at the press conference / Photo: Tamás Kovács (MTI)

Although the government filed a complaint against Demszky, Horváth, and Atkári, they weren’t among the individuals Csepreghy referred to by their initials. A Magyar Idők editorial found Demszky’s absence from the list especially regrettable. The former mayor will get off scot-free because “according to rumors, his name doesn’t appear to be in the report.” Only the CEOs of large companies will be prosecuted. But what will happen if they reveal “the name of the chief coordinator”? In brief, the journalist responsible for this editorial accuses Gábor Demszky of being the head of a conspiracy to commit fraud.

Meanwhile Hungarian members of the European Parliament decided to look into the question of whether the Hungarian government told the truth when it claimed that it needed the approval of OLAF to release the report and that it was waiting for OLAF’s response to its request. All three opposition MEPs–Csaba Molnár (DK), Benedek Jávor (Párbeszéd), and István Ujhelyi (MSZP)–asked the head of OLAF, Giovanni Kessler, about OLAF’s position. All three claimed that, according to the information they received, it was up to the Hungarian government whether to release the document or not. Since there is a controversy over the meaning of the information received, I will rely on Ujhelyi’s statement, which includes the original English-language letter he received from OLAF. Here is the crucial passage:

In response to your question, since the OLAF final report has now reached its intended recipients, the Office is not in a position to decide on the possible release of the report. Such a decision belongs in the first place to the national authorities to which the report was addressed. It is for these authorities to assess the impact of a possible release of the report and to ensure compliance with the relevant legal obligations on judicial secrecy, data protection and procedural rights, including the right of access to file.

It is hard to fathom why the Orbán government again resorted to lying instead of appealing to the possible legal problems that could stem from the release of the report. Since then, Attila Péterfalvi, president of the National Authority for Data Protection and Freedom of Information, personally asked István Tarlós, who by now has a copy of the document, not to make the OLAF report public. It looks as if Péterfalvi, before making this request, consulted with János Lázár of the Prime Minister’s Office and Péter Polt, the chief prosecutor, who are both against the release. Although there might be compelling legal reasons not to allow the publication of the OLAF report, given the reputation of Péter Polt’s prosecutor’s office one cannot help being skeptical about the real reasons for the secrecy.

Over the weekend Gábor Demszky gave an interview to Vasárnapi Hírek in which he detailed his position on the case. Demszky said that, according to the rules of the Council of Europe and the European Parliament, OLAF must give anyone mentioned in their investigative reports the opportunity to respond. Since no one contacted Demszky, Horváth or Atkári, it is probably safe to assume that they are not the subjects of the investigation. Even so, the Orbán government filed complaints against them. Demszky also said that because OLAF conducted its investigation between 2012 and 2016, “most of their information came from the offices of the Fidesz government.” OLAF, Demszky added, most likely accepted the information in good faith because its investigators don’t expect these offices to be swayed by political pressure.

I might add that one has to be very careful when assessing the veracity of witness testimony. We know from other politically motivated trials that witnesses often give false testimony. The most infamous was that of Zsolt Balogh, head of BKV. In order to save himself months of pre-trial custody, he invented the story that Miklós Hagyó (MSZP), one of the deputy mayors, demanded 40 million forints, to be delivered in a Nokia box.

The opposition parties are truly worried about the prospect of years of investigation by politically motivated Hungarian prosecutors. Even though in the past most defendants were eventually exonerated, they remained in limbo for years and their careers were ruined. We must also keep in mind that although OLAF has filed scores of such reports on cases involving fraudulent procurement practices, only four guilty verdicts have been handed down in the last almost seven years. Some cases, like that involving Orbán’s son-in-law, were unceremoniously dropped. The prosecutors’ sudden interest in this case indicates to me that they think they can use it to do damage to the opposition, one way or another. Evidence of culpability has never been the litmus test for deciding which cases to pursue.

January 30, 2017

An EU prosecutor’s office would be a heavy blow to Viktor Orbán

I don’t think that anyone familiar with the Hungarian situation can doubt the economic ramifications of the institutionalized corruption of the Orbán regime. It retards growth and competitiveness and distorts the market economy.

A significant source for this institutionalized stealing is the EU’s convergence funds. Across the EU approximately 50 billion euros in funds distributed to member states is lost to fraud. The problem is especially acute in the former Soviet satellite countries: Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary. The European Commission’s European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) gathers evidence of financial misconduct and prepares hundreds of judicial recommendations, but the prosecution rate is only about 30%.

If you think that this rate is pitifully low, you should take a look at the Hungarian situation. In 2015 OLAF investigated 17 suspicious cases, of which 14 were deemed serious enough for the organization to suggest that financial penalties be paid by the Hungarian government. As far as I could ascertain, in no case did the Hungarian prosecutors move a finger.

Yet hardly a day goes by without news of corruption. Ákos Hadházy, co-chair of LMP who has done the most to unearth corruption, asked Péter Polt, the chief prosecutor, to reveal the number of cases prosecuted since 2011. The answer was staggering. In only four cases did prosecutors bring charges. In monetary terms, in comparison to the billions most likely stolen, the sums involved were peanuts. According to their findings, the financial loss to the European Union was only 286 million forints, or 917,030 euros. Even though every day Hungary receives about two billion forints in EU convergence funds. Several notorious cases, like the street lighting business of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s son-in-law, were simply dropped.

For the EU, setting up a new organization–the European Public Prosecutor’s Office or EPPO–to investigate the fraudulent misuse of EU funds and inter-state or so-called carousel fraud is becoming an urgent task. In December I devoted a post to the subject, in which I reported first the reluctance and later the refusal of the Hungarian government to accept such a supranational body. We heard the old refrain: “the sovereignty of Hungarian prosecution might be undermined.” Moreover, goes the argument, since the Hungarian chief prosecutor is appointed by parliament, there might also be a constitutional problem. The latter excuse is truly laughable: almost never does the need for an amendment to the constitution cause any problem for the Orbán government.

Knowing the government’s heavy reliance on the good offices of the chief prosecutor in fraud cases, it was inevitable that Hungary would fight tooth and nail against EPPO. In the last couple of days the issue emerged again after an informal meeting of the justice ministers in Malta. Seventeen countries indicated they would participate in so-called “enhanced cooperation,” which is a procedure whereby a minimum of nine EU countries are allowed to establish advanced integration or cooperation within EU structures without the other EU countries being involved. Five countries, among them Hungary and Poland, opted out.

Justice Minister László Trócsányi self-righteously announced after the meeting that the Hungarian government’s main concern with setting up an EU public prosecutor’s office is its fear of weakening such institutions as Eurojust and OLAF, neither of which has prosecutorial powers. The former is merely a coordinating body that is supposed to improve the handling of serious cross-border crimes by “stimulating” investigative and prosecutorial coordination among agencies of the member states. OLAF can only make recommendations. Trócsányi had the temerity to claim that “these institutions have achieved remarkable results.” In the statement given to MTI, the Hungarian news agency, Trócsányi left open one possibility: “In case they want to establish a European prosecutor’s office, it should be created on the foundation of Eurojust.” As far as Hungary is concerned, “regulating the competence of such a body should require a unanimous vote.” This is in contrast to other countries “who believe that its establishment is possible by a qualified majority.”

Péter Niedermüller, DK member of the European Parliament, somewhat optimistically predicted that “the establishment of EPPO can be delayed but cannot be prevented.” We do know that the EU is reassessing its convergence program, perhaps as a result of all the fraud. Commissioner Věra Jourová, who is in charge of the project, has already indicated that there might be a modification of the rules governing the assignment of EU convergence funds. In plain language, if a member state receives more funds than it contributes to the common purse, it will get less money in the future. The European Parliament can institute “ex ante conditionalities” that would allow for such modifications. That would be a heavy blow to Poland and Hungary, the largest beneficiaries of the convergence funds.

You may have been wondering why I haven’t written about OLAF’s report on its investigation into fraud in the Budapest Metro 4 project, which was reported by Politico at the end of December 2016. It has been heralded as one of the biggest fraud cases ever in the European Union. OLAF recommended the repayment of €228 million to the EC Department of Regional and Urban Policy and €55 million to the European Investment Bank.

Although in the last month the Hungarian media has been full of accusations and counter-accusations, no responsible reporting of the case is possible for the very simple reason that the Hungarian government refuses to make the OLAF document public. As long as we have no idea what is in the document and we have to rely on the interpretations of János Lázár and Nándor Csepreghy, the number one and two men of the Prime Minister’s Office, and Budapest Mayor István Tarlós, who has definite ideas on the subject but admits that he hasn’t seen the report itself, we cannot possibly pass judgment on the case.

The investigation covers the period between 2008 and 2014–that is, two years of the Gyurcsány-Bajnai government and four years of the Orbán administration. The only thing we can say is that it is unlikely that all the fraud took place before 2010 and nothing happened under the new government, which is what the Orbán government claims.

Under the present setup these OLAF reports can be an instrument for political games. The establishment of a supranational European Public Prosecutor’s Office would help prevent the kind of situation that currently exists in Hungary with the latest OLAF report.

January 29, 2017

OLAF finds irregularities–fraud and possible corruption–in the Metro-4 megaproject

So what else is new? Politico reported that the European anti-fraud office, OLAF, after looking into the financing of Budapest’s fourth metro line, found “serious irregularities—fraud and possible corruption.” OLAF recommended, because it has no authority to do anything else, that Hungary return €228 million to the European Commission and €55 million to the European Investment Bank. OLAF’s investigation covers the period between 2006 and 2015. As Politico noted, this period spans not just the two Orbán administrations “but also two Socialist-backed governments that ruled between 2004 and 2010.”

I have already written about the difficulties surrounding the building of this new metro line, so I will not recount the story here. Suffice it to say that when the line was eventually finished, it bore little resemblance to the original plans. It was only about 7 km long, running between the Kelenföld train station in South Buda and the Eastern Station on the Pest side. Originally, it was to run all the way to the outer sections of the city in Bosnyák tér, but because of financial difficulties the second part of the project was abandoned. As a result, the line is severely underutilized. And its cost was enormous. Benedek Jávor, Párbeszéd MEP, considers the project as it stands now “completely senseless.”

It is difficult to come by hard figures, but Politico puts the total cost of the project at €1.7 billion. According to the Hungarian version of Wikipedia, the cost was 450 billion forints, of which 180 billion came from the European Union and almost 170 billion from the central government. The City of Budapest contributed about 70 billion. The balance most likely came from the European Investment Bank.

As soon as the news of OLAF’s findings reached Budapest the debate began over who the guilty party is. The government’s first reaction was that it had absolutely nothing to do with the project. Everything was handled by the City of Budapest. (The City of Budapest, I would note, didn’t get a copy of the 104-page report OLAF sent to the government.) According to Lord Mayor István Tarlós’s office, as far as they know all the irregularities occurred between 2006 and 2010. So, the Gyurcsány and Bajnai governments and Gábor Demszky, former lord mayor of Budapest, are responsible for all the “irregularities” while the Orbán government is blameless. This is hard to believe.

Since the government has not released the OLAF report, we are in total darkness about the nature of these “irregularities.” I am, however, somewhat suspicious about their alleged timeline. For starters, it was only in September 2009 that the European Commission made the decision to finance the first 7-km section of Metro-4. Of course, that doesn’t preclude the possibility that fraud and corruption occurred before that date. Most likely it did. We know only too well how business is conducted in Hungary, especially when it comes to the prospect of “free money” from Brussels.

As you can see, no money was spared on the appointments

What strengthened my suspicion of the Orbán government’s culpability in this affair was an article that appeared in the government mouthpiece Magyar Idők only a few hours ago. The title of the article is telling: “Brussels wants to saddle Orbán with the affairs of Medgyessy and Demszky.” Brussels, it would seem from the headline, is pointing the finger at Orbán. Perhaps in anticipation of such a finding, the Orbán government set out to shift the blame to Medgyessy and Demszky.

Péter Medgyessy was prime minister of Hungary between 2002 and 2004. After his political career ended, he returned to his consulting business and in this capacity received 597,000 euros from the French company Alstom in 2006, the year when the final decision was made by the City of Budapest to buy Alstom cars for the new metro line. In December 2014 Alstom was found guilty of paying more than $740 million in bribes to government officials around the world.

A few months ago Hungarian authorities began an investigation into the connection between Medgyessy and Alstom. The final verdict on Medgyessy’s innocence or guilt has not yet been reached, but even if it turns out that he lobbied the Demszky administration on behalf of Alstom, for which he received money from the company, it is unlikely that OLAF considers this something for which either the Hungarian government or the City of Budapest is responsible. Unless, of course, they can prove that Medgyessy tried to bribe the officials responsible for the decision to buy Alstom cars. It seems, however, that the investigative committee set up by the Budapest City Council in September has been singularly unsuccessful in proving that any of the lobbyists tried to bribe those responsible for the decision. The final report of the committee has not been published yet, but probing questions by the right-wing media to Fidesz members of the committee have failed to unearth anything about money exchanging hands in connection with the purchase of the Alstom cars.

We can’t expect any information on the OLAF investigation from official sources for months. But, just as in the past, it can easily happen that the document will be leaked to the Hungarian media. After all, Politico is in possession of certain material already. Until then it’s a guessing game.

December 22, 2016

Not on Viktor Orbán’s Christmas list: A European Public Prosecutor

The establishment of a European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) has been on the table since at least 2013. In the last three years, despite intensive negotiations, progress has been slow because of the resistance of some of the member states, among them Hungary. As it stands, in order to create EPPO 25 member states have to support the proposal because the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Denmark have opted out. According to reports, 20 member states support the plan while Poland, Hungary, Sweden, and the Netherlands oppose it. The reluctance to cede certain national rights to the European Union is understandable from the point of view of nation states, but we can be sure that Hungary’s unwillingness has other sources as well.

EPPO will have the authority “to investigate and prosecute EU-fraud and other crimes affecting the Union’s financial interests.” Currently, only national authorities can investigate and prosecute EU-fraud. The existing EU bodies, such as OLAF, Eurojust, and Europol, don’t have jurisdiction here. OLAF can investigate, but the prosecution must be carried out by the authorities of the member states. As we know, in the case of Hungary OLAF finds plenty to investigate, but the Hungarian authorities never find anything wrong. Europol has no executive powers, and its officials are not entitled to conduct investigations in the member states or to arrest suspects. Eurojust, an organization I have not mentioned before, is merely a coordinating body which is supposed to improve the handling of serious cross-border crimes by “stimulating” investigative and prosecutorial coordination among agencies of the member states. This is another body that has no power over the justice system in the member states. Eurojust could “stimulate” Péter Polt’s prosecutor’s office till doomsday and it would never investigate crimes committed by Fidesz officials.

From the description of EPPO’s structure on the website of the European Union I have some difficulty envisaging how this independent prosecutorial body will function. Under a European prosecutor, investigations will be carried out by European delegated prosecutors located in each member state. These delegated prosecutors will be an integral part of the EPPO, but they will also function as national prosecutors. I must say that I have my doubts about this setup, which Viktor Orbán’s regime could easily manipulate. But it will probably never come to pass because, among the Central European EU members, Hungary and Poland have no intention of going along with the plan which, according to Věra Jourová, commissioner in charge of justice, consumers and gender equality, should be voted on within three months.

The head of OLAF, Giovanni Kessler, naturally supports the plan because the number of cases his organization has to investigate increases every year. In 2015 OLAF opened 219 investigations and concluded 304. Hungary alone had 17 possible fraud cases, the third highest after Bulgaria and Romania. But OLAF can only make recommendations to the member states, which at least in Hungary’s case are not pursued. Interestingly, several chief prosecutors in member states support the idea of the setting up a European Prosecutor’s Office, among them the prosecutors of Belgium, Bulgaria, Greece, Spain, France, and Romania. As we know, in Romania corruption is just as bad if not worse than in Hungary, yet there is a willingness to allow an independent body to investigate cases of fraud and corruption.

Last July the Hungarian media reported that the negotiations were in an advanced stage since Jourová called together the ministers of justice for an informal talk in Bratislava. At that point HVG reported that “Hungary supports the goals of the organization but is afraid that the sovereignty of the Hungarian prosecution may be undermined.” The explanation Justice Minister László Trócsányi gave for Hungary’s hesitation concerning EPPO was that in the Hungarian judicial system the chief prosecutor is appointed by the parliament and therefore the sovereignty issue might be a constitutional problem. By December, after Jourová’s visit to Budapest, this hesitation became a flat refusal. In addition to the argument about the parliamentary appointment of the chief prosecutor, a new argument surfaced in parliament, which had its source in Trócsányi’s proposed additions to the Fidesz constitution about Hungary’s “national identity and basic constitutional arrangements.”

Practically on the same day that the parliamentary committee said no to the proposal “in its present form,” Věra Jourová told Handelsblatt Global that “the European Commission could impose financial penalties on Poland and Hungary if they block the creation of a European public prosecutor.” Poland and Hungary receive more aid from the European Union than they pay into the budget, and therefore their refusal is unacceptable. She disclosed that on the basis of the known cases, €638 million of structural funds were misappropriated in 2015. The actual figure is most likely much higher. This must be stopped, she added.

Věra Jourová, commissioner in charge of justice. Despite her pleasant smile she’s apparently tough.

On December 8 EU justice ministers gathered again in Brussels to discuss the creation of EPPO, but while the majority of them support the plan, a few member states refuse to budge. To quote euractiv.com, “with no end in sight to this blockage, France’s Minister of Justice Jean-Jacques Urvoas and his German counterpart Heiko Maas decided to propose an enhanced cooperation deal for those countries that are in favor of this ‘super prosecutor.’” Enhanced cooperation is a mechanism that allows EU countries to bypass the requirement of unanimity. A group of at least nine member states may request a draft regulation. If this draft fails, the states concerned are free to establish enhanced cooperation among themselves. I fail to see how that would be disadvantageous to rogue states like Poland or Hungary. Orbán would gladly acknowledge the fact that EPPO has no jurisdiction over Hungary, and he and his friends could continue to steal about a third of the structural funds EU provides. A perfect arrangement.

Now let’s turn to how the opposition parties see the issue. As far as Jobbik is concerned, the establishment of a European Public Prosecutor’s Office is the first step to the dreaded United States of Europe. In fact, Jobbik accuses Fidesz and the Orbán government of not fighting hard enough in Brussels against this proposal. Jobbik must consider the issue very important because they published a statement in English in which Gábor Staudt, a Jobbik MP, explains the party’s position. He recalls the Fidesz members of the European Parliament not having the guts to vote against the proposal; they only abstained. Jobbik’s opposition is based strictly on its nationalistic defense of Hungarian sovereignty whereas Fidesz worries primarily about the legal consequences of an independent European prosecutor’s office investigating crimes of government officials.

The democratic Hungarian opposition parties are all enthusiastic supporters of a European Public Prosecutor’s Office. DK was actually campaigning with the idea ahead of the 2014 European parliamentary election. Benedek Jávor, a member of the European parliament delegated by PM (nowadays Párbeszéd), joined DK’s demand soon after. István Ujhelyi (MSZP), also a member of the European parliament, is of the same mind. He wrote a lengthy piece, published on the party’s website, about the necessity of such a body in the absence of a functioning Hungarian prosecutor’s office. Ujhelyi is sure that if EPPO is set up “the Fidesz hussars will be behind bars in crowded rows, including those corrupt officials who assist them.” He criticizes Fidesz members of the European Parliament for abandoning the position of the European People’s Party to which they belong. They “almost alone abstained” at the time the matter was discussed in Strasbourg.

Ujhelyi somewhat optimistically points out that if Hungary remains outside the group of countries that are ready to be under the jurisdiction of the European Public Prosecutor, the distinction between honest and dishonest countries will be evident. In case Fidesz refuses to support the decision, “it will be an admission that it is a party of thieves.” I’m afraid Viktor Orbán and his government simply don’t care what others think of them. At the moment Viktor Orbán is in Poland on a two-day visit. I understand that he and Jarosław Kaczyński had a leisurely three-hour dinner. I’m sure that the threat of a European Public Prosecutor to the sovereignty of Poland and Hungary was thoroughly discussed.

December 11, 2016

The latest business venture of Orbán’s son-in-law

István Tiborcz, Viktor Orbán’s son-in-law, pretty well disappeared from the spotlight once OLAF, the European Union’s anti-fraud office, started to investigate his firm, Elios Innovatív Zrt. The firm specialized in LED street lighting technology and practically cornered the market: one city after the other signed contracts with Elios to modernize its street lighting with funds that came from the European Union. With the EU investigation pending, Viktor Orbán and his son-in-law decided that it might be wise for Tiborcz to “sell” his share of the business to Attila Paár, a well-off businessman with excellent connections to the Orbán government.

Only once, in December, did Tiborcz get any media coverage. The story was about Elios’s work in Zalaegerszeg, which seems to have been less than satisfactory. In some parts of the city it is pitch dark, while in others pedestrians have difficulty navigating because the streetlights shine only on the road, leaving the sidewalks practically unlighted. Complaints poured into city hall, which the mayor, naturally a member of Fidesz, “tried to handle discreetly.”

Now the Tiborcz family is back in the news. It seems that István Tiborcz might be one of the investors who purchased the Schossberger Mansion in Tura, which has been described as the most beautiful castle in Hungary, comparable only to the palaces along the Loire River in France.

Who were the Schossbergers? Not much can be learned about them online, but William O. McCagg, Jr.’s Jewish Nobles and Geniuses in Modern Hungary provides quite a bit of information about the family, who were originally from Moravia. The first Hungarian Schossberger who settled in Pest in 1833 was Lázár. His son, Simon Vilmos Schossberg, was the first unconverted Jew to receive nobility from Franz Joseph, in 1863. In 1873 Simon’s son Zsigmond purchased 13,000 hectares from Prince Miklós Esterházy. Ten years later he commissioned a neo-Renaissance mansion based on the plan of Miklós Ybl, one of Europe’s leading architects in the second half of the nineteenth century. Ybl’s best known work is the Hungarian State Opera House (1874-1884).

schossberger

The Schossberger Mansion

After 1944 the mansion was used by the Germans and the Soviet troops. It then became an elementary school. After the regime change it was sold twice, but no one did anything with the building, which would need serious renovation.

Last October a mysterious new buyer showed up: TRA Real Estate Kft., a brand new joint stock company headed by Dr. Judit Tóth. TRA Real Estate Kft. is the parent company of BDPST Ingatlanforgalmazó és Beruházó Zrt., owned by Judith Tóth and Loránd Aurél Szabó, both lawyers. The new buyer wanted to be sure that the city of Tura didn’t have the right of first refusal and therefore sent the law firm of Endre Hamar to approach the city.

It is here that one becomes suspicious. First, Hamar got in touch with the town of Tura on September 7 in the name of TRA, when the firm didn’t yet exist. It was established only a week later. Second, Endre Hamar is a former business partner of István Tiborcz. Third, Hamar’s law firm might exist only on paper. It is ostensibly located in the same building as the headquarters of Elios Zrt. BDPST Ingatlanforgalmazó, which is linked to TRA, also has the same address. As 444.hu notes, Endre Hamar cannot have too many clients, considering that his firm has no website and one cannot even find the firm’s name on the list of businesses renting office space in the building.

Meanwhile, the deal took place. Whoever bought the mansion paid 200 million forints, including a 80 million forint mortgage, to the Széchenyi Bank.

When the the Schossberger Mansion was purchased, the transaction couldn’t be directly linked to István Tiborcz. But three days ago 444.hu found out that it was István Tiborcz himself who paid the 100,000 forint excise tax on August 14, at the time of BDPST’s registration as a new business. What is still a mystery is where TRA Kft. got the millions of forints that it spent on the mansion in Tura. Neither Judith Tóth nor Loránd Aurél Szabó has any other business venture that could fund the purchase.

If Tiborcz is behind BDPST Zrt., he might also have interests in other real estate ventures because BDPST is the part owner of two other businesses dealing with real estate, AMX HS and AMX Nador House. The CEO of both companies is a wealthy Turkish businessman, Suat Gökhan Karakus, who resides in Budapest. The other part owner of these companies is HBRE International Investments B.V. of Amsterdam.

On January 8 Együtt (Together) released a communiqué in which the party asked István Tiborcz and Ráhel Orbán to come forward and explain the source of their wealth. I think Együtt can wait for the day when anyone in the Orbán or, by extension, the Tiborcz family reveals the source of their rapid enrichment. Of course, it would also be nice to know where the 2 million euros came from that Lőrinc Mészáros just invested in the NK Osijek football club. That would be quite a job, not just for an investigative journalist but for a whole slew of the best detectives in Europe and the Americas.

Transparency International: Systemic government corruption in Hungary

It’s time to recall what U.S. Ambassador Colleen Bell had to say about corruption in her much discussed speech: “Corruption stalls growth, stifles investment, denies people their dignity, and undermines national security…. Wherever systemic corruption has effectively undermined fair governance, it creates an environment ripe for civil unrest, resistance to the government, and even violent extremism.” It looks as if the U.S. government came to the conclusion that corruption in Hungary is no longer the ordinary “garden variety” of corruption where government or municipal officials offer favors for cash but the kind of corruption that affects the entire body politic.

A case in point is the corruption that surrounds the disbursement of European Union subsidies, which the government tolerated and perhaps even encouraged. Or at least this is the conclusion we can draw from the latest Transparency International study titled “Corruption Risks of Union Sources in Hungary.” In this study there is a telling table that lists reports of alleged corruption cases in connection with EU subsidies in 2014. While in Belgium the authorities reported 28 cases of the possible misuse of Union funds (compared to 25 private actions), in Hungary all 28 complaints came from individuals and none from central or municipal governments. Even in the very corrupt Romania there were four instances in which the authorities themselves turned to OLAF, the organization that investigates corruption cases.

burning euros

One of the important findings of the study is that the abundance of money coming from the EU is a major reason for the systemic corruption that exists in Hungary. The second Orbán government in 2010, right after the elections, stopped all projects that were underway and began reorganizing the agency that handled EU funds. As a result, for almost two years nothing happened, even as the country was nearing the end of the seven-year budgetary cycle. The money had to be spent and in a great hurry. As a result, in the 2013-2014 period the government wasn’t terribly fussy about what project would be funded or how much it would cost. The only aim was to spend the money before Hungary lost a large chunk of it. Just to give you an example of the superabundance of money during this period, here is a shocking figure. The amount of money that was spent during 2013-2014 was 10% of the Hungarian GDP. That is an enormous amount of money. Almost three times the amount that Hungary normally receives yearly, which is 3.5% of the GDP.

It is a well-known fact that 95% of all government investment comes from Brussels, without which there would be no economic growth whatsoever. In 2014 the Hungarian government could boast an economic growth of over 4%, which was hailed as a turning point and the beginning of a soaring economy. As if from here on growth would be consistently over 4%. Orbán at times even talked about 5-6% economic growth, which would make Hungary the leading economic power of the region. If you consider, however, that the Union subsidies during that period were 10% of the GDP, then the 4.2% growth is not at all impressive.

This period’s overabundance was unusual, but even the average amount of money that comes from Brussels is substantial. And unfortunately most of it seems to be wasted, at least as far as trying to lay the groundwork for sustained economic growth is concerned. Just to give you an idea of how much money we are talking about, here are a couple of figures. During the budgetary cycle between 2007 and 2013 Hungary received 26 billion euros, a large chunk of which was spent in the final few years. In the next cycle (2014-2020) an additional 19 billion euros can be used. What does Hungary have to show for all this capital infusion? The results are pitiful.

Transparency International found that, on average, companies that win contracts for EU projects overprice their products by 25% and that the authorities know all about the practice but don’t complain. It is considered to be the normal way of doing business. Dickering over price takes time, which the government, in its rush to spend, doesn’t have. Checking on wrongdoings is also time consuming. Of course, the overpricing of products and services can sometimes be staggering. Ákos Hadházy of LMP, the vet from Szekszárd, has ferreted out some such extraordinary cases. In one instance the contractor billed five times the market price for pieces of machinery.

During his research the author of the study, László Kállay of Corvinus University, noticed that the rate of the overpricing doesn’t seem to grow over time. “As if there is some kind of control in the system.” As if there was some kind of understanding between the government and the providers of the services. As long as they are not too greedy and stick to the 25% overpricing, the government will not raise objections.

Meanwhile OLAF is investigating 13 of the 28 complaints coming from individuals. With this number Hungary is in second place in the list of countries whose handling of EU subsidies is suspect. Only Romania has a worse record with 36 questionable cases.

And now a piece of news I spotted in The Financial Times back in September. According to the article twelve EU member states might be in trouble for failing to meet the required standards for public procurement: Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Greece, Croatia, Italy, Latvia, Hungary, Malta, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, and Slovakia. If EU procurement standards are not met by the end of 2016, the auditors said, “the [European] Commission should use its powers consistently to suspend payments to member states, until such time as they have rectified the shortcomings.” Some of the monies have already been withheld, as was reported by the Hungarian media back in August and September.

Of course, the Prime Minister’s Office simply doesn’t understand what Transparency International is talking about. There may have been problems in the past, but since August 2013 János Lázár himself has been supervising the disbursement of EU subsidies. He has been the foremost advocate of transparency and clean hands. His new deputy, Nándor Csepreghy, announced the other day that there was nothing new in the study published by Transparency International. I’ll bet that most people will disagree with him and will find plenty of new information in László Kállay’s study on systemic corruption in the Orbán government.