Tag Archives: Orbán family

“The struggling young couple”: István Tiborcz and Ráhel Orbán

I haven’t written anything about the financial affairs of the Orbán family lately, although news of the shady affairs of the father and brother of the prime minister crops up often enough. Today I’ll return to the financial affairs of Viktor Orbán’s son-in-law who, though barely 30 years old, has most likely already amassed a considerable fortune.

István Tiborcz’s first business venture ended rather abruptly when OLAF, the European Commission’s Anti-Fraud Office, announced that it was going to investigate his company, Elios, which had won tenders for the installment of LED lighting in scores of Hungarian cities. The lighting project was largely financed by the European Union. The Tiborcz-Orbán “family firm” realized that, in this instance, the brazen expropriation of EU funds would not be tolerated. So Tiborcz in a great hurry “sold” his firm to a businessman with very strong ties to Fidesz. Tiborcz then went into the real estate business. As he explained to Origo a few days ago, he, as a member of the prime minister’s family, is limited in the kinds of financial activities he can pursue. He claims that for the past two years he has been buying real estate only from private individuals, no state property.

All this sounds innocent enough, but if we take a closer look at Tiborcz’s business dealings it seems that the son-in-law may have received quite a bit of coaching from the master at hiding his wealth, the Hungarian prime minister himself. When Tiborcz established his first real estate firms, he hid behind two friends who were registered as the owners of TRA Real Estate Kft. and BDPST Zrt. By now these two companies own eight high-priced pieces of real estate, among them former aristocratic mansions and valuable commercial property in Budapest and elsewhere. Some of these properties were jointly owned by wealthy Turkish businessmen or sold to characters like Ghaith Pharaon, the now allegedly deceased Saudi businessman of dubious reputation. Tiborcz hid so well that, as far as the Hungarian media was concerned, his ownership of these companies couldn’t be ascertained. Until now.

To the surprise of those who have been trying to find out more about TRA and BDPST, István Tiborcz gave an interview to Origo, which is now owned by the son of György Matolcsy, Orbán’s right hand and president of the Hungarian National Bank. The title of the article is misleading when it claims that “We investigated: István Tiborcz is owner in the real-estate development company.” After reading the article, one can be absolutely certain that the journalists of Origo investigated nothing. For one reason or other, István Tiborcz went to the pro-government internet site to offer the information, which he had tried to hide at least since the summer of 2015.

People who have been following Tiborcz’s business ventures and his secretive behavior as far as his business affairs are concerned couldn’t figure out what got into him. Why did he feel compelled to open up suddenly? On October 30, the very same day the Tiborcz interview appeared, the internet edition of Heti Válasz  came out with an article from which one could learn that András Bódis of Válasz had been pursuing the case of BDPST’s ownership for some time, without much luck. The “CEO” of the company, a certain Judith Tóth, didn’t even bother to answer Bódis’s inquiries. In fact, Tiborcz was so reluctant to divulge his own involvement in the company that BDPST initially gave up the idea of a capital raise when the Registry Court (Cégbíróság) made it clear that it would not register the firm unless the ownership of the company was released. After some hesitation, Tiborcz decided that he needed the stamp of approval of the Registry Court and relented.

It is hard to fathom why Tiborcz felt compelled to give an interview. One reason may have been his fear that Válasz would come out with some juicy story about its efforts to discover more about Tiborcz and his firm. The other reason might have been that, simultaneously with the Válasz project, Átlátszó was digging into the young couple’s purchase of a luxurious eleven-room, three-story house with servant’s quarters and a swimming pool in the most expensive part of the Kútvölgy section of Buda. The listing price of the property was 360 million forints (about $1.35 million). Therefore, in addition to his admission that he is the majority owner (meghatározó tulajdonos) of BDPST, he casually mentioned that he bought a house as a business venture that is in such bad shape that it is practically falling apart. So, before he does anything with it, the house must be completely renovated.

The modest living room

I’m afraid that truthfulness is in short supply in the extended Orbán family. As Antónia Rádai of Átlátszó found out, the purchaser of the property was not BDPST but István Tiborcz. Therefore, it is unlikely that this luxury property was purchased for resale. As for the state of the house, which he described as “life threatening,” I have my doubts after taking a look at some pictures that appeared when the property was being advertised for sale. It is, however, apparently true that men are working furiously on the building, even through part of the recent long weekend. I suspect that it is still not up to the standards of the demanding young couple.

A bathroom in a house which is falling apart and needs immediate propping up

The interview was really touching. Tiborcz spoke about the struggling firm, which is still not quite profitable. Here and there they make money when they manage to sell a piece of property, but the road ahead them is long and the work is hard. This sob story naturally was spread far and wide by the government propaganda outlets. Of course, let’s not fool ourselves. The majority owner of a company that has yet to turn a profit doesn’t buy a house that costs over a million dollars. We don’t know the full story of Tiborcz’s investments, and I doubt that we ever will.

November 2, 2017

The end of an Orbán family business?

In November 2014 I wrote a post,”How do European Union funds end up in the hands of the Orbán family?” It was about the new member of the Orbán clan, István Tiborcz, the husband of Viktor Orbán’s eldest daughter, Ráhel. Tiborcz and Ráhel had known each other for at least six or seven years before they married in September 2013. The young man in 2008 was a fledgling businessman, half owner of a small business dealing with electrical supplies. In 2010, however, one of Közgép’s divisions purchased the majority of shares in Tiborcz’s business. From this point on the business, named Elios Innovatív Zrt., changed directions and became the leading installer of LED-technology street lighting. One after the other, Fidesz-led municipalities made sure that the to-be son-in-law’s company received lighting contracts. By 2012 Elios was thriving. What surprised me at the time was Közgép’s withdrawal from the company just when Elios was doing so well. I wrote: “what baffles me is the role of Simicska’s Közgép. I find it more than a little odd that Simicska’s Közgép shows up to support the fledgling business of István Tiborcz, already known to be Ráhel’s boyfriend, only to withdraw from the firm after its spectacular growth. Közgép is not, as far as I know, active in venture capital or private equity.” Now, a few months later, I am no longer baffled. Közgép/Fidesz, because it is difficult to know where one began and the other ended before the Simicska-Orbán fallout, in fact did play the role of venture capitalist. It financed the “promising” company of István Tiborcz, the future son-in-law of the boss. Moreover, it was a surefire investment given Elios’s business profile. Especially since, as it turned out, the government allocated almost 9 billion forints of mostly EU money to upgrade ordinary street lighting to LED technology. And orders from Fidesz-led municipalities could be counted on.

Looking back now on the beginnings of Tiborcz’s business career, I’m almost certain that Tiborcz’s transition from owning a business that sold electrical supplies to owning one that installed street lighting was inspired by Viktor Orbán himself, who by 2010 knew very well that there would be plenty of EU money for more efficient street lighting fixtures. It was to the advantage of the municipalities to embark on such a project because 85% of the cost was covered by EU and Hungarian government money. And given the family connection, business success for Elios was guaranteed.

István Tibor and his father in law, Viktor Orbán having some  homebrew

István Tibor and his father in law, Viktor Orbán, having some homebrew

My suspicion was further aroused when I read lately that János Lázár, then mayor of Hódmezővásárhely, was the first head of any Hungarian city to come up with the idea of LED-technology street lighting. That was in the fall of 2009, before the 2010 elections. At the time such technology was still in its experimental phase, even in the most developed parts of the world. The city fathers approved the idea and soon enough Hódmezővásárhely chose István Tiborcz’s brand new company to do the job. It was this job that established Elios as the expert in LED street lighting technology.

In fact, Elios was too successful, Tiborcz too greedy, or the municipal leaders too servile. Far too many contracts landed in Tiborcz’s lap, and questions kept popping up about his business success, which smacked of corruption and nepotism. Yet, although months went by and negative articles multiplied, Viktor Orbán didn’t seem to be bothered about the unfavorable press. In fact, Nándor Csepreghy, assistant undersecretary for communication involving European Union projects, outright lied to György Bolgár of KlubRádió when the reporter asked him about the inordinate number of projects in which Tiborcz’s firm was involved. He claimed that there were hundreds and hundreds of such municipal orders and that Elios won only a couple of dozen of them. Soon enough it became known that so far only 33 cities have received grants from the EU and the government for street lighting to the tune of 5.7 billion forints and surprise, surprise, István Tiborcz’s firm won 71% of these contracts–that is, close to 4.1 billion forints. Very often Elios was the sole firm that qualified because the demands of the Fidesz-led municipalities were tailor-made to fit the son-in-law’s firm. Details of this highly irregular affair can be found in an article published by direkt36.hu in March of this year.

Although Viktor Orbán acted as if he were oblivious to the growing scandal surrounding his son-in-law’s business dealings, by now we learned that the decision to escape from a very sticky situation was made sometime earlier. They decided “to sell” István Tiborcz’s 50% stake in Elios. On May 28 Napi Gazdaság, the new servile government newspaper, reported that exactly one month earlier, on April 28, István Tiborcz sold all of his businesses that had anything to do with public procurement. The family could no longer stand the constant attacks by the opposition and the antagonistic media.

On April 30, two days after the sale of Elios, HVG reported a “sensational piece of news.” János Lázár himself rejected the city of Jászberény’s proposal because its wording was suspiciously designed to match Elios’s qualifications. Well, in light of our current knowledge that by that time István Tiborcz was no longer a co-owner of Elios, Lázár’s bravery, hailed by HVG, is less admirable than it seemed at the time.

Who is the new part-owner of Elios? His name is Attila Paár, another Fidesz oligarch who has been involved in many large projects, such as the renovation of the Várkert Bazár and the National Civil Service University. On April 23, 2015 he established, together with two partners, a business called WHB Befektetési Kft (WHB Investment), which  five days later purchased Tiborcz’s share of Elios.

Before Tiborcz’s share of Elios was sold, Tiborcz and his partner took out 470 million forints in dividends from the company’s profits, which left the company with only 6.29 million forints on its balance sheet. The deal has all the earmarks of a fictitious transaction.

The Fidesz robber barons. Part III: The Orbán family’s enrichment 1998-2002

Today I will return to József Debreczeni’s book on “The Fidesz robber barons.” This time the topic will be the enrichment of the Orbán family, which included Viktor Orbán’s father, Győző, between 1998 and 2002–that is, while he was prime minister.

Debreczeni, who for years  taught high school history before he became a politician and subsequently a writer on politics, notes that although political corruption has had a long history in Hungary, the highest political dignitaries did not dirty their hands with money grubbing. Not so Viktor Orbán who, as investigative journalists discovered, systematically exploited his position for financial gain.

Just to put things in perspective, here are a couple of figures. In 1998 Orbán and his wife had 5.5 hectares of agricultural land. Four years later they had 11.5 times more. In 1994 the couple purchased an apartment for 563,000 forints in downtown Budapest. In 2002 they purchased a villa in the most elegant section of Buda for 75 million forints, which they enlarged and renovated to the tune of tens of millions.

Viktor Orbán’s father Győző–which by the way is the Hungarian equivalent of Viktor–had two smallish quarries worth 98 million forints. Four years later, he was worth 666 million forints.

The Orbáns were involved in two separate business ventures. Neither is pretty.

Their first business venture took them to Tokaj. Dezső Kékessy, a wealthy Hungarian businessman from Switzerland who left Hungary after the 1956 revolution but returned to Hungary after 1990, was looking for business opportunities. Tokaj seemed like a good prospect. During the socialist period Tokaj, which had had a very good name before the second world war, lost its luster due to the general deterioration of viticulture in Hungary. The stock was old, so vineyards could be had for relatively little money. Kékessy and Orbán met and became friends and eventually business partners. Well, that’s not quite precise. On paper Kékessy’s business partner was Orbán’s wife, Anikó Lévai. I might add that Orbán eventually named Kékessy ambassador to France.

The Orbáns’ share in the company that Kékessy formed was relatively small, but the Orbáns naturally became key business partners due to Orbán’s position. First, he made sure that the grapes the company produced found a market. There was an ailing state company in Tokaj that was still the major buyer of grapes in the region. Since the head of the state bottling company was appointed by Orbán, they had a ready market for their grapes. In fact, in 2000 the state company bought grapes only from the Orbán-Kékessy vineyard. Orbán also made sure that the state bottling company had money to buy their grapes.  In 2000, the government financially strengthened the ailing company with the injection of 1.5 billion forints. In 2001 another 2.5 billion was invested in the company. And it kept buying the prime minister’s grapes, even though there was a glut in the wine market.

Tokaj wine region / Wikipedia.org

Tokaj wine region / Wikipedia.org

The Fidesz government also offered what amounted to a “friends and family” package. István Stumpf, who headed the prime minister’s office in those days, had a large, extended family in the region, some of whom owned vineyards. In 1998 the Stumpf family managed to sell only 5 million forints worth of grapes, but after cousin István became an important man in the government they did exponentially better. In 2000 their sales were 17.7 million and in 2001 30.6 million. Two Stumpfs were actually employees of the bottling company, and it was their cousin in Budapest who approved pumping billions into the state company.

But that wasn’t all. The Orbán-Kékessy company asked for state subsidies for the improvement of their vineyards. The owners got together to discuss business matters, often in Viktor Orbán’s apartment. It was during one of these meetings that Orbán warned his business partners to be cautious about the subsidies: “we shouldn’t be the ones who get the most.” Obviously he was worried about someone discovering his interest in the company. So they didn’t get the most, only the second most. In 2001 570 people received subsidies for vineyard improvements. Only two got over 40 million forints. The first received 44,636 forints, and the second, the Orbán-Kékessy concern, 41,475. In addition, on two other occasions their company received an additional 64.5 million forints in subsidies.

The other setting for the growing Orbán empire was Felcsút, the village where Orbán spent his early childhood. Of course, nowadays we hear mostly about the Puskás Football Academy and the huge stadium for 3,500 in a village of 1,800 inhabitants. But twelve years ago the expansion of Orbán’s holdings was still in its infancy. Here too, the launch of the Orbán empire was shady. In 2001 the Orbáns purchased 54 hectares of agricultural land for half the price of what land sold for in those days in the County of Fehér. Anikó Lévai purchased the land from Sándor Bognár, the head of a large state farm in the vicinity (an Orbán appointee). Two weeks after Bognár sold the land to the Orbáns, the state farm without competitive bidding was privatized. And who became the majority owner of the farm? Sándor Bognár.

But that is not the end of the story. Felcsút and five villages around it received a 2.7 billion forint state subsidy for water control. Apparently flooding is not a problem in the area. In fact, these villages receive less than the average amount of precipitation. The ministry in charge put the Felcsút application in thirtieth place on their list of ranked applications. Sándor Pintér, minister of the interior, stopped the discussion and made the documentation of the parliamentary commission a state secret. Against the recommendations of the ministry he placed the Felcsút project at the head of the list.

After Felcsút received this subsidy, the puzzle of the low price of the land that Sándor Bognár sold to the Orbáns was solved. It turned out that Bognár had purchased the land from two sisters who had additional acreage, which now the local government purchased on the government subsidy for the purpose of building rain collectors. The sisters received 10 million forints for about three hectares, seven times the average price of land in and around Felcsút. This is how the two sisters got compensated for selling their land for half price to the Orbáns and the Hungarian taxpayers footed the bill.

As a result of the large government investments in and around Felcsút, real estate prices have skyrocketed. The land the Orbáns bought for 5 million is today worth 34.4 million. It is also possible that the status of this land might be changed from “agricultural” to “land for development.” In that case it could be worth 400 million forints.

And finally, a few words about Győző Orbán’s business ventures. Dunaferr, a steel plant, was in those days still a state company. After Orbán took office the management of the company was changed. Soon thereafter Dunaferr signed a five-year contract with Győző Orbán’s quarry to supply gravel and concrete for Dunaferr. He was the low bidder but later it turned out that the contract didn’t include transportation costs that were separately billed. These costs had to be considerable because Orbán’s quarry was a great deal farther from Dunaferr than the company that had supplied the materials previously.

It turned out that the elder Orbán also supplied material for road construction as a subcontractor. His son later denied his father’s business connection with Vegyészgép, which received the construction job without competitive bidding. But Viktor Orbán didn’t tell the truth. Győző Orbán, in anticipation of the large order from Vegyépszer, managed to get the rights to quarry rock and gravel. Once his son warned him about the dangers of getting state orders, he passed these rights on to one of his men, who established a new company called Femol Kft.

As the saying goes, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Viktor Orbán and his fellow oligarchs

The Orbán government has given up the idea of solving the forex loan problem quickly and in one fell swoop. For a couple of weeks it looked as if Viktor Orbán was thinking of a radical solution that would have meant making the banks pay the difference between the exchange rate at the time of the issuance of the loan and the current exchange rate. This could have been a tremendous burden. Just to give you an an idea, if someone took out a loan in Swiss francs in 2008 he paid 143.83 forints for one Swiss franc. Today the exchange rate is 241.51 forints to one Swiss franc.

The original idea was borrowed from the Croatian government’s decision a few weeks ago. There is, however, a huge difference in the number of people with forex mortgages in Croatia and Hungary.  Apparently the “nuclear option” was abandoned because the government realized that the entire Hungarian banking sector could go under as a result.

In no small measure Sándor Csányi was responsible for this change of heart or at least for the government’s realization of the possibly grave consequences of such a move. After all, he sold a large number of his OTP shares which by itself prompted some panicky follow-through on the Budapest stock exchange. By now most observers interpret his move as a warning to Viktor Orbán. This is what can happen, and on a much larger scale, if the government goes through with its plan.

Those who don’t quite believe this scenario point out that no one knows how many OTP shares Csányi actually owns. A German source claims that what Csányi sold amounted to no more than 1% of his holdings. So, the argument goes, this shouldn’t have made a great impression on Viktor Orbán, who surely knows the details of Csányi’s finances.

But Ferenc Gyurcsány, who was interviewed on the subject, dismissed this argument. Csányi’s sale of this allegedly tiny portion of his holdings was not itself a threat. But implicit in this sale was the threat that if the government goes through with its plans he may dump the other 99%, the consequences of which might be immeasurable.

Gyurcsány knows Csányi only too well. When he was prime minister he had quite a bit to do with him because, after all, “he is a big player … with a tremendous amount of power.” In fact Gyurcsány agrees with János Lázár that Csányi and the other oligarchs have far too much power, which a prime minister must keep in check.  He himself normally sent them away and told them that they cannot expect special treatment from him. He admitted that as a result his relationship with Csányi and the others was not the best. He didn’t sit with them with in the VIP section at soccer games spitting out sunflower seeds, a reference to Viktor Orbán’s not exactly elegant habit.

As for János Lázár’s reference to Csányi as an octopus, apparently Orbán suggested that his chief of staff sit down for coffee with Csányi to smooth things over but Lázár ignored the suggestion. When Orbán inquired about the meeting, Lázár told the prime  minister that he has no intention of ever apologizing to Csányi. Orbán didn’t press the issue. I guess by then he decided that Csányi didn’t really deserve an apology, especially since he learned that Gordon Bajnai’s foundation had received a small grant from him. I’m sure that this “sin” will not be forgotten by the vengeful Viktor Orbán.

The relationship of Csányi, and the other oligarchs as well, with Orbán is complicated. For one thing, Csányi doesn’t seem to like him as a person. When Orbán was in opposition, Csányi often talked about him disparagingly in Gyurcsány’s presence. Admittedly, it is in the interest of these oligarchs to seek close relations with the powers that be. And yet if they feel that the government is working against their interests and that no amount of pressure will cause it to change its ways, they will not hesitate to abandon the prime minister and his party. Orbán cannot trust Csányi, Demján, and some of the others because they are not his men the way Lajos Simicska is. The behavior of Sándor Demján, who is up in arms about the nationalization of the credit unions, and Sándor Csányi seems to indicate that these oligarchs are fed up with the unpredictable, anti-business policies of the Orbán government.

There is another aspect of the relationship between the oligarchs and Viktor Orbán that has received very little attention. One mustn’t forget, Gyurcsány said, that the Orbán family’s wealth puts him and his family among the top five richest families in Hungary. Orbán has cleverly hid his and his family’s wealth, but he cannot hide behind front men and legal tricks forever. One day he will be caught. He became an MP practically straight out of college and today he is a billionaire. He is using his position to enrich himself and his family. That is not only immoral, it is a crime.

This is not how you become a billionaire

This is not how you become a billionaire

This interview took place with Olga Kálmán on ATV, and the reporter was visibly shaken by the news that the extended Orbán family may have become one of the five richest families in the country. Therefore she decided to follow up on the story. The next day she invited Mátyás Eörsi, a former SZDSZ MP and an old acquaintance of Viktor Orbán. Eörsi was also one of the members of a parliamentary committee that was supposed to find out how the former prime minister managed to acquire so many assets in a few years, allegedly from his modest salary. Unfortunately, creating these investigative committees in Hungary is a waste of time because they have practically no enforcement authority. They can’t even require witnesses to appear. This particular committee was just as useless as was, for example, the investigative committee on the sudden and unexpected decision of the first Orbán government to purchase Gripen fighter planes. Although the family’s enrichment was highly suspicious, the committee didn’t manage to pin anything on him. Olga Kálmán also took a good look at Orbán’s financial statements, the kind every MP must fill out yearly. These statements indicate that, especially given his five children, he could have led at best a modest middle-class life.

Like Gyurcsány, Mátyás Eörsi is convinced that the Orbán family is among the richest in Hungary. In fact, he is pretty certain that way back in 1992 when Fidesz sold the half of a very valuable building it received from the Antall government, the whole amount landed in the Orbán family’s coffers, laundered through about twenty phony companies. These were the companies that were later sold to two phantom buyers for one forint each.

Prior to becoming a member of parliament in 1990 Eörsi had a fairly lucrative legal practice. He didn’t start with nothing as Orbán did. Moreover, Eörsi’s parliamentary salary was a great deal higher than average. He claims based on his own experience that there is no way that Orbán could have saved enough money to buy the house he did after he lost the election.

Eörsi as a lawyer is especially interested in the “legal techniques” by which Orbán manages to hide his immense wealth with the assistance of his front men. As long as he is prime minister he has no problem controlling whatever is being handled by others. But what techniques did he use to guarantee access to his wealth once he is out of office?

One reason for Orbán’s many political successes is that his followers believe that he is a man of modest means who takes their side against the bankers, multinationals, and oligarchs. But what will happen if his people find out that their beloved prime minister is in fact one of those hated oligarchs?