Tag Archives: OLAF

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.

Corruption at the highest level? It looks that way

Eleni Kounalakis’s book on her tenure as U.S. ambassador in Budapest has prompted quite an uproar in Hungary. I have already spent three posts on her book. Here I simply want to call attention to the couple of sentences that caused the opposition to cry foul.

Kounalakis, discussing the Orbán government’s preferential treatment of Hungarian companies, relates the following story:

Minister of National Development Lászlóné Németh told me that every week she sat down with Orbán, looked over the list of public works projects, and decided which ones to prioritize and which bids to accept. “If a Hungarian company’s bid is competitive with one from an Austrian or German company, then yes, they will win,” she explained. “Why should German companies be building Hungarian roads? And if Közgép is the only Hungarian company that can do it, why shouldn’t they continue to win the bids?”

As Kounalakis rightly points out, Hungary’s EU membership requires it to treat all EU-based companies the same as its own. “Rather than creating a transparent and predictable business environment that would allow Hungarian companies to rise up through open competition, Prime Minister Orbán appeared to be closing competition to all but a few companies, whose success he sanctioned.” (p. 253)

Mrs. László Németh and Viktor Orbán after her swearing in ceremony as minister for national development

Mrs. László Németh and Viktor Orbán after her swearing-in ceremony

This information was a political flashpoint. Leaders of the Demokratikus Koalíció were incensed, and Együtt threatened to sue Viktor Orbán himself. On May 17th, Orbán was asked by a reporter whether it was true that every week he sat down with the minister of national development to discuss the fate of certain large projects. Orbán didn’t deny it. In fact, he claimed that this was the legal and proper way of handling such matters. As Népszabadság concluded, “even today it is the government that decides which projects should win.”

Well, this sounded pretty bad. And so Fidesz issued a statement accusing Ferenc Gyurcsány’s government of corruption, adding that DK should be the last party to say anything about the current government’s misdeeds. Soon enough several government officials also decided to comment on the case, trying to save face. Mrs. Németh naturally claimed that Eleni Kounalakis misunderstood her. She and the prime minister didn’t discuss who should win. Rather, these conversations were about priorities, about ranking projects according to their importance.

The “Kounalakis affair” was even a topic at the Wednesday cabinet meeting. Defense is usually not enough for the Orbán government. Viktor Orbán and his cabinet members believe that the best defense is a good offense, and therefore János Lázár accused the former ambassador of publishing the book for the purpose of “earning a little extra money.” At that point I almost fell off my chair laughing. Lázár doesn’t seem to have the foggiest idea about AKT Development and the immense wealth of the Tsakopoulos family.

DK plans to get in touch with Eleni Kounalakis and will also turn to the European Commission’s European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF). DK’s argument goes something along the following lines. Before the book was released the State Department went through the book carefully and didn’t object to the inclusion of such sensitive information as Viktor Orbán’s personal decisions about projects financed by the European Union. That this piece of information remained in the book is not surprising given the U.S. government’s concern over corruption in Hungary.

We don’t know whether Mrs. Németh and Eleni Kounalakis were alone when this conversation took place, but given the diplomatic protocol the former ambassador describes in detail in her book it is unlikely. Therefore, this indiscretion of Mrs. Németh is most likely known by others from the U.S. Embassy staff. Moreover, after every such meeting copious notes are taken, which are immediately sent to Washington. The only question is whether the State Department wants to get involved in this case. I somehow doubt it. And even if they did, it would still be almost impossible to prove what everybody suspects–that it is Viktor Orbán himself who determines the fate of bids for practically all government projects. Let’s put it this way: if you’re close to the prime minister, you win a disproportionate number of bids. Just witness the success of Orbán’s son-in-law and Lőrinc Mészáros, the mayor of Felcsút, who is sometimes described as the prime minister’s front man.

The European Union has had enough: No money for a 110 billion project already underway

Not only does Quaestor’s collapse and the government’s involvement in this scandal weigh heavily on the third Orbán government. Viktor Orbán just heard officially that the European Union is refusing to finance a 30 km section of a new Hungarian superhighway, the M4, that would be 230 km long and would lead all the way to the Romanian border just north of Oradea/Nagyvárad. This is a first. And this time there is no possibility of any further negotiations. The project must either be abandoned or be built from purely Hungarian sources. Trying to resubmit the same project based on another, lower bid seems pretty hopeless since the European Union considers the whole project a “luxury item.”

I would be hard pressed to recall all the dates that were mentioned in the press about the imminent beginning of work on the project. It was in 2003 that civil engineers and experts on transportation came up with a 15- and a 30-year plan which included two much-needed superhighways, M8 and M4, that would transverse the country from the Austrian border to Romania. The point was to avoid Budapest, which has for far too long been the epicenter of the Hungarian transportation system. By 2005 it looked as if both M8 and M4 would be built.

In December 2012 Index reported that work on the planned 30 km section of M4 between Abony and Fegyvernek would begin in 2013. At that time people familiar with the price structure of Hungarian highways predicted that it would cost “tens of billions of forints,” but by the end of 2014, when all the bids were in, the cost was 110 billion or almost 4 billion per kilometer. That is four times the price of similar road construction in Western Europe where wages are considerably higher. Such a blatantly overpriced project was too much for the European Union. Moreover, they suspected price fixing. But what is really devastating for the Hungarian government is that the EU didn’t just stop this particular section of M4 but refused to finance the entire 230 km of M4 during the 2014-20 budget period.

An unfulfilled dream: "M4's construction began at Abony / szolnoknaplo.hu

An unfulfilled dream: “M4’s construction began at Abony” / szolnoknaplo.hu

The European Union’s decision about the Abony-Fegyvernek section of M4 couldn’t have come as a surprise to the government. Although by January 2014 all necessary permits were obtained and therefore work could begin, the green light from Brussels wasn’t forthcoming. In December 444.hu learned that in general there are problems with the Hungarian projects waiting for approval in Brussels. “Among other reasons, the European Commission did not pay because the officials consider the prices submitted too high.”

Benedek Jávor (PM MEP) turned to OLAF (European Anti-Fraud Office) to initiate an investigation into the M4 highway project. He wanted to know whether there were any signs of corruption, specifically any possibility of kickbacks to parties by the five firms involved in the construction of the project. Colas USA and the Austrian Swietelsky were to build 13.4 km for 46.76 billion forints. Lajos Simicska’s Közgép together with another Hungarian company, Híd, was entrusted with a short 2.4 km section, but it had three bridges, including a new 756 meter-long bridge across the Tisza River. For this work they signed a contract for 32.5 billion. For the rest Strabag International was to receive 31.5 billion.

The Hungarian government was so eager to launch the project that in January they began construction, which means that about 30% of the project has already started. It is not at all clear what the government will do in light of the EU decision. After all, it is not the fault of the companies involved that the Hungarians decided to begin construction without the final okay of Brussels. If, however, price fixing can be proven, Nándor Csepreghy, assistant undersecretary in charge of communication on matters related to the European Union, said, the construction companies will be responsible to the Hungarian taxpayers for the loss of 110 billion forints.

Although the Hungarian government now echoes the EU and says that the construction costs are too high, back in 2013 when Benedek Jávor first began his investigation of the case neither Mrs. László Németh, then minister of national development, nor János Lázár found anything wrong with the winning bids. In fact, both insisted that they “were not irrationally high.” But now, suddenly they’re talking about price fixing. It is hard to escape the conclusion that Benedek Jávor’s suspicions about possible kickbacks to individuals and perhaps also to Fidesz’s coffers are well founded.

As far as I know, up to this point it was only Simicska’s Közgép that reacted to Csepreghy’s threat of passing the lost EU money on to the companies involved. Közgép published a statement in which they explained that it was Közgép that offered the lowest price in a proper bidding process and that their job was not simple road building but the construction of three bridges. The new Tisza bridge will require 8,500 tons of steel. In addition, two smaller bridges, on either side of the Tisza, must be built over wetlands. Közgép called attention to the fact that the January issue of the Official Gazette announced that the government would finance from domestic sources a road that “connects M5 with M4.”

Indeed, János Lázár only recently reiterated the “government’s long-standing desire to have at least a four-lane highway between M5 and Szolnok.” Apparently, it is for political reasons that the Orbán government wants to make this road a priority. It was in Szolnok last September that Viktor Orbán announced his ambitious plan for building four-lane highways that would connect each county seat to the larger superhighway system of the country. Moreover, he planned this expansion of the roads not from EU money but from domestic resources. Such a road would “bring spectacular economic development to the city,” said Ildikó Bene, a Fidesz member of parliament. Budapest could be reached from Szolnok in less than an hour, she promised.

As for the charge of cartel activities and price fixing, I’m not sure that this is the real reason for the extraordinarily high prices asked for the job. Colas-Swietelsky bid 3.49 billion/km and Strabag 2 billion/km. Közgép is a different story because their work consists mostly of building bridges. I’m almost sure, however, that officials demanded kickbacks. A conversation between Nándor Csepreghy and Egon Rónay of ATV on Friday morning supports this supposition. When Csepreghy went on and on about the cartel activities of the firms involved, Rónay asked him why Hungary had to wait for the European Union to suggest that price fixing might be behind the high prices. Why didn’t they investigate these suspiciously high prices themselves? Csepreghy refused to answer. He tried every which way to bypass the question until Rónay said, “Well, you just refuse to answer my question.” Probably a wise decision.