ATHENS – As Greece’s economic crisis worsens and intensifies, new scrutiny is being brought on the 300 Members of Parliament, whose pay and benefits is more than members of the United States Congress, and some of whom are said to have hidden their assets in Swiss bank accounts and Greece has failed to go after major tax evaders. Josef Zisyadis, a prominent Swiss politician, has charged that there are Greek politicians with huge secret accounts in Switzerland, leading Evangelos Argiris, the Chairman of the Greek Parliamentary Committee that monitors the finances of political parties and Members of Parliament, to demand he prove it.
Two New Democracy MP’s, Gerasimos Giakoumatos and Kostas Tzavaras, have also asked the Parliament to investigate the claims. Zisyadis, who was born in Istanbul to Greek parents, told Greek television that there are Greek MPs with very large deposits in Swiss banks. In a written response, Parliamentary Speaker Filippos Petsalnikos, a PASOK Socialist MP, said the question is already being probed by by a special committee who have requested information and lists from the Finance Ministry that has so far not released the names of tax evaders costing the country more than $60 billion. Venizelos reportedly has a list of some 750 Greeks who secreted at least $135,000 to Switzerland in 2009. Addressing Parliament on Oct.20, he said one of them has reportedly stashed away some $197 million in a Swiss bank account when at the same time he owes some $858 million in back taxes, but Venizelos wouldn’t produce the name.
Greece is currently pursuing a bilateral agreement with Switzerland so that it can unleash a tax raid on Greeks keeping money in Swiss bank accounts. Switzerland is the world’s top destination for offshore wealth, largely due to its decades-old tradition of bank secrecy. Finance Ministry General Secretary Ilias Plaskovitis met with Michael Ambuehl, head of Switzerland’s State Secretariat for International Financial Matters, in Bern on Oct. 27 to talk about a possible tax agreement. It’s not unlawful to have a Greek bank account in Switzerland or anywhere in the world unless you don’t declare it so that you can be taxed.
A deal is expected to be ready by the end of the year and reportedly would require Greeks with deposits in Swiss banks to reveal to Greek authorities the balance of their accounts or they will be forced to pay a tax at a rate that would apply had the amount been declared as income in Greece. According to Reuters, the Swiss authorities would forward the tax revenue to their Greek counterparts on an anonymous basis.
Venizelos expressed optimism that the pact would help Greece crack the major problem of high-level tax evasion and raise revenues to curb the country’s gaping budget deficit. “Greece will be able to collect a significant amount of taxes evaded over many years, and be able to access information that will allow us to locate blatant cases of tax evasion,” he said. “It is a very significant development that the negotiations with Switzerland are entering the final phase,” he added. Greeks hold an estimated $269 billion euros in Swiss bank accounts, a sum believed to include some of the widespread tax evasion indulged in by affluent Greeks.
The financial situation of all 300 MPs will be open to public scrutiny soon, officials claimed. Their origin of wealth forms (known as pothen esches in Greek) will be published online on Dec. 15. Everyone will be able to access the forms online until the end of the year. The forms, which all MPs are required to file each year, contain information about all their sources of income and property they own. Meanwhile, Parliament’s 2012 budget will soon force lawmakers to tighten their own belts to save the country some $36.3 million although Petsalnikos claimed that Greek lawmakers, who have cut the salaries of Greek workers, raised taxes, slashed pensions and approved scores of thousands of layoffs, have have cuts of as much as 40 percent to their $8,097 monthly salary and substantial benefits, that include a $220 bonus every time they attend a committee meeting, an additional $2024 monthly for office expenses, a $1,349 housing expense for those who represent areas outside Athens, 68 free round-trip tickets annually and unlimited free transportation on trains and buses, a luxury car, a monthly fuel allowance of $810, a police officer to guard them, four cell phones and a free landline at their home, amnesty from any crime, reduced taxes, interest-free loans, four secretaries and a scientific advisor, free gym membership, free kindergarten for their children, free entrance to archaeological sites and museums, free transportation and lodging when they travel, and free tolls on Greek roads, and can retire after one four-year term with a pension of $6,856.
(Sources: Athens News, Reuters, Kathimerini)