ATHENS – With pressure mounting on Greece to go after tax evaders and an embarrassing turnaround for the government after two top prosecutors going after tax cheats first resigned over what they said was political interference only to quickly return, a top customs official has resigned after being charged with allegedly failing to collect fines in a fuel trading scandal that also saw money returned to companies who had been penalized.
Yannis Kapeleris, a Secretary General who was handling the tax and customs portfolio and had been working in the financial crimes unit, is being accused of not collecting fines imposed on fuel and heating oil suppliers for smuggling. Kapeleris stepped down late on Monday after Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos told him to quit. The charges brought against Kapeleris – as well as against the head of the Customs Control Directorate Evangelia Pantazi – concern allegations that they failed to collect $19.4 million fines that had been imposed on companies for illegal fuel trading. Finance ministry officials allegedly also failed to conduct checks on the companies that had been fined. There were further cases in which various methods were used to cancel fines that had been imposed.
Financial crimes prosecutor Grigoris Peponis – who had quit himself before coming back – ordered Kapeleris’s prosecution on the charge of dereliction of duty. A lower-ranking Athens prosecutor was told to pursue press charges following receipt of the file against Kapeleris, following a two-month investigation into claims that he hindered efforts to penalize petrol station owners for alleged fuel smuggling. Peponis ordered Kapleris’ prosecution for alleged breach of duty — a felony charge that can carry a maximum life sentence. Kapeleris denied wrongdoing.
“He is charged with breach of duty,” a court official said. “An investigating magistrate will look into the case and also for accomplices.” The investigation was launched two months ago after media reports that Kapeleris had blocked the collection of fines imposed through an electronic system. Kapeleris said that the system was not operating properly, most of the fines should not have been imposed or there would be serious fuel shortages, and the ministry was preparing a bill to address the issue. “I respect the prosecutor’s decision but I am not responsible for the dysfunction of the electronic system,” he told Reuters.
Greece has stepped up its drive against tax evasion and corruption by lifting privacy restrictions on bank accounts and slapping tougher penalties on tax dodgers, but international lenders say the results so far are not satisfactory. The government in the past two months has arrested more than 50 tax evaders who owe more than $194,000 each and recently identified 10 doctors with between $1.3-$3.2 million in bank accounts on which they had allegedly not been taxed. Tax evaders cost the country more than $60 billon and Venizelos, despite going after Kapleris and Pantazi, has in his office a list of more than 6,000 tax cheats he won’t release and Peponis had earlier complained he had to wait for months to get information on tax fraud from Venizelos’ office.
Peponis and fellow prosecutor Spyros Mouzakitis returned to their jobs after initially resigning. Their complaints of political interference prodded the coalition government of interim Prime Minister Lucas Papademos, a former European Central Bank Vice-President, to step in and the two lawyers returned to work although court officials said they had not found any evidence of tampering. Peponis and Mouzakitis had recently launched probes into a number of high-profile cases, including major tax evasion, the resignation of Finance Ministry official Diomidis Spinellis after claims that fines on fuel trading firms were not being collected, banks’ funding of Alter TV, allegations of benefits cheating and claims of fiddled statistics at the Hellenic Statistical Authority (ELSTAT.) They refused to provide names of politicians they said were impeding investigations.
(Sources: Associated Press, Kathimerini, Reuters)