WHENEVER a major kickback has been revealed in Greece, it has almost always been uncovered by the German judiciary. That is because German companies routinely secured lucrative deals by buying off Greek politicians and bureaucrats.
The parliamentary probe of such bribes allegedly to former Pasok defence minister Akis Tsochadzopoulos got off to a fiery start even before the committee, which is expected to be chaired by Pasok MP Markos Bolaris, was officially formed.
The rightwing Laos party stormed out of the vote on the probe of possible kickbacks from Germany’s HDW to clinch a Greek order for four U-214 submarines. Laos charges that Pasok and ND agreed to a whitewash by investigating only the acts of Tsochadzopoulos, whose political career ended ingloriously in 2007, but none of his successors’ deeds.
The supreme court prosecutor’s document accompanying the file recommended two probes: one of Tsochadzopoulos and members of the Kysea (the government committee on foreign affairs and defence, chaired by then-premier Kostas Simitis) and another of members of later governments involved in the implementation of the submarine contracts.
But the proposal tabled by 112 Pasok MPs and passed was that only Tsochadzopoulos should face a preliminary criminal probe. The possible culpability of later ministers is to be examined by the permanent committee on armaments, which does not have an investigating magistrates’ authority.
Tsochadzopoulos, however, has been in the news for over a year over how a mansion on one of Athens’ most expensive streets was acquired by his wife. Both criminal and tax fraud probes were launched.
In an interview with the Athens News, Bolaris said that the committee will not review the evidence gathered on the real estate by Athens prosecutors and the tax fraud bureau (SDOE) because “the bureau’s investigation is not complete”. He added: “If a link between the SDOE probe and the kickbacks arises, we would look at it.”
Can indications that a minister may have committed the crime of “unjustifiable enrichment” be ignored? Bolaris answers that the bribe-taking can be seen as money laundering, a felony with no statute of limitations. But many legal scholars reject that interpretation of kickbacks. “The German judiciary found firm evidence that bribes were paid,” Bolaris said. “What we don’t know is who got the money.” The Pasok MP noted there was a complex bribery system using subsidiaries in Germany, Switzerland and Britain. “Intermediaries and large Swiss law offices were used to make the payments to people who could influence the orders,” he said.
But the fast-track probe is scheduled to end by June 7, leaving little time for an in-depth investigation.
Bolaris admitted that it will be difficult to track down the flow of bribe money, even though the committee can request the opening of bank accounts and subpoena witnesses: “The problem is that the crucial accounts are in offshore companies. That was a problem for German prosecutors too. We hope witnesses can shed light. Whoever has evidence should come forward.”
Given public rage over the impunity with which politicians and others have enriched themselves through corruption, it will be politically difficult for the committee not to return the case to the judiciary to handle it. The decision on whether to charge the accused minister will be taken in a secret ballot in the full parliament.
Laos will not participate in the probe, charging that Pasok and ND are staging a whitewash. Party MP Ioannis Korantis, a former chief of the Greek Intelligence Service (EYP), made headlines on May 4 when he was verbally attacked by former ND defence minister Vangelis Meimarakis, who hinted that Korantis may have given Laos leader Yiorgos Karatzaferis intelligence on the submarine deal (see page 8).
“I will take to the grave anything I know,” Korantis told the Athens News.
Korantis noted that according to German court evidence, 73 million-83 million euros in bribes were paid when Tsochadzopoulos was defence minister. But he added that in June 2007 a Greek company acting as a mediator in the deal requested a bribe of 66 million euros, and that eleven million was paid in August 2007, when Meimarakis was defence minister.
For his part, Meimarakis said that he refused to accept delivery of the submarines, so he could not have taken a kickback. But he also suggested that Laos had a vested interest in the deal, as it submitted dozens of parliamentary questions on why the government was stalling in accepting delivery of the submarines. He said that the Laos leader personally pressured him in a one-on-one meeting to accept their delivery.
|Athens News 9/May/2011 page 12|