Tuesday 1 June 2010

Greece’s Corruption Non-Scandal

I don’t know if it’s a political tactic, or renewed zeal on the part of Greece’s unelected and unaccountable journalists, but the past month has seen a steady escalation of discoveries of government corruption and dramatic tales of inefficient practice.

·        On Sunday, Kathimerini broke the story that former Defence Minister Akis Tsochatzopoulos’ wife purchased a house on Dionissiou Areopagitou Street for EUR 1.1 mln from a series of two offshore companies, one of which was implicated in the Vatopedi land exchange scandal. The actual value of the house is obviously far higher.

·        Last week, former transport minister Tasos Mantelis admitted to the Parliamentary committee investigating the Siemens bribery scandal that he received DM 200,000 in “pre-election campaigns” from Siemens. This cast the political class into an uproar.

·        Last night, Ioannis Pretenteris reported that the Olympic Village, an organisation set up to manage the 2004 Olympic Games athlete’s village, increased its staff to over 150 full-time staff in the past 4 years, well after the games had ended and most or all of the buildings had been sold or transferred. Among the professions hired included graphic designers, communications experts and psychologists (useful for elections, but not for managing a real estate company without assets). The total wage bill amounted to about EUR 23 million.

·        Makis Triantafyllopoulos reported that based on a comparative analysis of medicine costs, the Hellenic national insurance fund (IKA) is paying significantly more for the same medical disposables (e.g. cotton gauze) than equivalent national health organizations in Italy, France or the UK. In some cases, the difference is over 200-300%.

Although I am very much in favour of public disclosure, I have concluded that none of this steady drip-drip-drip of “scandals” is going to result in a lasting solution. Why?

a.      The only reason that Siemens is an issue is because the German prosecutor’s office has done the investigative work. Greece has taken practically no steps to launch a fully independent, forensic investigation of public procurement and political finance, and does not have such an organisation capable of doing so.

b.     The published amounts of Siemens—loosely stated at about EUR 100 mln in bribes disbursed over a 17 year period—are nearly the same amount as the bribes distributed by the Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft (HDW) and its subsequent owners for the construction of four submarines at Skaramangas. This case has also been published by the German prosecutor’s office, but is not being investigated by anyone in Greece. Why the difference?

c.      Siemens is one of two main organisations which provided telecommunications equipment to OTE and other government organisations over the past 20 years. There is another company, Intracom which in the past has featured prominently in corruption allegations. The owner of Intracom, Socrates Kokkalis, is also owner of Intralot, which has gained major contracts with the OPAP betting organisation. Is Intracom the subject of a Parliamentary inquiry?

d.     The amounts procured by the government for weapons contracts and other major capital works (e.g. Athens International Airport, the Attiki Odos, etc.) amount of at least EUR 5-7 bln per year. If we assume a similar system of kickbacks and commissions as what has been already reported in the press, then it’s clear that a DM 200,000 “campaign contribution” from Siemens is an insignificant amount. What is being done to investigate actual contracts, as opposed to individual companies or individual politicians?

e.      One of the main “havens” of dirty money is Cyprus, where there are at least 3,000 offshore companies registered by Greek interests. Many of these companies are shielded behind nominee shareholders, making the identity of the true owners difficult to reveal. What steps are being taken to investigate the ownership of bank accounts in Cyprus, especially given that Laiki-Marfin and Bank of Cyprus have such a large banking network in Greece?

For various reasons, I believe that what we are seeing today is nothing more than a “bread and circus” approach to political corruption. Unless a serious effort is undertaken to use forensic accounting methods, there will be little opportunity to uncover the truth, or recover the stolen money.

Greece has a number of options for this:

1.     It can nominate an independent forensic auditor, such as Debevois and Plimpton, which handled the Siemens investigation, to open a full-scale, independent inquiry. (It’s clear that neither the Hellenic Parliament, nor the PASOK Ethics Committee, to which Mr. Tsochatzopoulos was referred this week, have the capacity to undertake such an investigation, even if they had the political will).

2.     It can require Marfin-Laiki, Bank of Cyprus and other Cypriot banks to provide a list of Greek owners of offshore banking accounts in Cyprus, or face a suspension of their banking licenses in Greece. (This is the same tactic that the US Government has taken in Switzerland with success. However, since so many Greek politicians and their family members appear to have offshore bank accounts, this will probably never happen).

3.     It can appoint a third-party purchasing organisation, such as Crown Agents or SGS, to take over and maintain a transparent, central purchasing organisation for medical equipment and disposables as well as other sectors.

4.     It can request that the US Federal Bureau of Investigation or the US Secret Service set up an independent financial crimes investigative unit, staffed by a Greek expatriate or other newcomer to the Greek scene, for a minimum period of 10 years, with a ring-fenced, full budget and full authority to investigate political corruption.

5.     It can lift the outmoded and corrupting system of Parliamentary immunity and the statute of limitations on certain categories of crimes.

6.     It can demand that the Republic of Cyprus end the practice of nominee shareholding, at least for Greek citizens, or companies receiving funds from Greece.

Obviously, none of this is going to happen. We will be fed a steady stream of serious or not-so-serious disclosures, and perhaps some people will be imprisoned for minor misdemeanors.

It is exceptionally difficult to understand how these serious crimes will be investigated, since their very instigators are often still in Parliament, or represented in Parliament by their descendents and relatives. Alternatively, they are still in the civil service, and in many cases their entire family works there. Alternatively, they are still political party members in good standing.

In the present case, despite whatever good intentions there are (and I welcome them), I don’t believe the same political architects which created this corrupt system have the wherewithal to reform it. Everything we are seeing to date is an effort at damage control, using the full array of meaningless slogans or false outrage such as “μην μας απαξιώνεται” or “μην μας ισοπεδώνεται”.

Christos Papoutsis’ outburst on “Anatropes” last night is an excellent case of this: every other politician I’ve seen on Kardavellas or Triantafyllopoulos or the news in the past 8 days has reacted exactly the same way. Condemn the general situation; deny any personal responsibility; refuse to offer any real solutions or straight answers.

Welcome to the desert of the real.

1 comment:

  1. Visit www.hellenicbank.info to view the two biggest economical scandals in Cyprus and Greece
    1. The manipulation of the price of the Hellenic Bank shares during the period of the issue of Rights ( 130 Million Euros)
    2. The unsuccesful IPO of Bank of Cyprus in Greece, stock manipulation, bad management of provident fund...


    Nobody was accused!!!!