Even as a Greek judge acquitted a journalist of violation of privacy laws after he published a list of 2,059 Greeks with $1.95 billion in deposits in a Swiss bank account, the Parliament is being asked to investigate why two former finance ministers – including current PASOK Socialist leader Evangelos Venizelos – didn’t check it for evidence of tax evasion.
An original list of 1,991 names on a CD that had data on customers from many European countries that was stolen from the Geneva branch of the HSBC bank was given by then French finance minister Christine Lagarde in 2010 to then Greek finance minister George Papaconstantinou, who said an aide lost it.
His successor, Venizelos, didn’t act on it because he said the data couldn’t be used because it was stolen, although Lagarde said other European countries had hunted tax cheats based using the information.
Papaconstantinou and Venizelos, could face charges of criminal negligence if parliament referred them for trial, according to legal analysts. The request for Parliament to probe the case came from financial prosecutor Gregoris Peponis. As Parliament opened proceedings on the prosecutor’s request, current Finance Minister Yiannis Stournaras, told the members that there was no trace of the list when he took over in June: “It is another list that would be useful for cracking down on tax evasion … I was told by my officials that it couldn’t be found,” he said.
That prompted Venizelos to step forward and say he had a copy on a memory stick, which he gave to the office of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, whose coalition government includes PASOK and the tiny Democratic Left.
Under Stournaras, the finance ministry has launched separate investigations into possible tax evasion in the purchase of high-end London properties by 400 Greeks, and also overseas transfers totalling €22 billion ($28.2 billion) by 54,000 Greeks. The finance ministry has said at least 15,000 transfers involved funds that had not been declared to the tax authorities.
It hopes to recapture at least €2.5 billion ($3.21 billion) in unpaid taxes. Parliament on Nov. 7 is set to vote on a $17.45 billion spending cut and tax hike plan for 2013-14 that is aimed squarely at workers, pensioners and the poor while tax cheats who cost the country an estimated $15 billion a year have largely gone unpunished.