Former Finance Minister George Papaconstantinou, indicted by Greek lawmakers who voted to have Parliament investigate whether he removed the names of three relatives from a list of depositors in secret Swiss bank accounts, has blasted the move as an attempt to “manufacture guilt,” by the ruling government coalition.
A total of 71 MPs from New Democracy, PASOK and Democratic Left signed a proposal for Parliament to investigate whether Papaconstantinou should face prosecution over allegations that he tampered with the list of Greek depositors at the Geneva branch of HSBC in order to remove the details of his relatives.
Parliament will have to vote by Jan. 15 on whether the inquiry should be held. A simple majority in the 300-seat House will be enough for the investigative committee to get the green light.
The major opposition party Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) is likely to submit its own proposal, possible asking for other officials apart from Papaconstantinou to be investigated, including former prime minister George Papandreou, who appointed him. It was known if there would also be a push to probe current PASOK leader Evangelos Venizelos, who ejected Papaconstantinou from the party, was his successor as finance minister, and also had access to the same list.
Papaconstantinou said he would co-operate with any investigation but that he would not be a scapegoat. “I have nothing to hide and I will not be a willing Iphigenia for anyone,” he said, refusing to sacrifice himself. He said previously that he was framed and pointed the finger squarely at Venizelos as having a motive to tamper with the list.
“Today’s proposal to bring me before a parliamentary committee is full of inaccuracies and has already deemed me guilty for doctoring electronic data that others had in their possession for the last 18 months,” he said.
The former minister has angrily denied the allegations, insisting the names were removed without his knowledge. “I did not remove the names of my relatives or any other name … I gave the (electronic) file I received to the then-head of SDOE (the Greek financial police),” he said in an interview published in the Athens newspaper Ethnos. “I have been framed,” he said. “It is very convenient for the entire responsibility for this issue to be held by just one person,” he added.
For him to be prosecuted, however, his immunity from crimes while serving as finance minister would have to be lifted. The allegations include tampering with a public document and breach of duty — offenses that would carry a maximum 10-year jail term, according to legal experts. A parliamentary committee in December voted not to probe Papaconstantinou, nor Venizelos.
The government has had different versions of the list for more than two years but it was lost after being given to Papaconstantinou in 2010 by then French finance minister Christine Lagarde, now the head of the International Monetary Fund, one of Greece’s international lenders, and never acted on by two former heads of Greece’s financial crimes squad nor Venizelos.
Papaconstantinou, 51, served as finance minister between 2009 and 2011 in the previous PASOK government headed by Papandreou, now a Member of Parliament and lecturer at Harvard who also called for an investigation into the man he appointed.
LOST LIST RESURFACED
After Papaconstantinou got the list from Lagarde, he said it went missing somehow and it was not used to check for possible tax evaders. Venizelos, who succeeded him as finance minister in the Papandreou administration, late in 2012 said he had a copy but also didn’t act on it because he said it was data stolen from the bank.
A committee of senior judges will decide whether Papaconstantinou should face criminal charges on the basis of evidence from the inquiry, expected to involve several weeks of hearings, according to a parliamentary official, the Financial Times reported.
Two former heads of SDOE though are also being probed as to why they didn’t act on the list either, although a Parliamentary committee earlier in December voted not to go ahead with an investigation of them or Papaconstantinou or Venizelos.
Venizelos, under siege in his own party and facing a challenge to his leadership over his handling of the list, is trying frantically to distance himself from his former colleague as the scandal grows, and blamed Papaconstantinou for the debacle.
The names of one cousin of Papaconstantinou, her husband and the husband of another cousin were on a second copy of the list handed by French authorities to three Greek officials in Paris last week, after allegations that changes were made when data on the original computer disk were transferred to a USB stick. The three names were omitted from the list on the USB stick, according to a financial prosecutor’s report delivered to Parliament last week and published on several Greek websites.
After current Finance Minister Yiannis Stournaras vowed to find the list, Venizelos produced his copy and handed it in October to Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, after another copy was published by a journalist, Costas Vaxevanis, who was prosecuted but acquitted of charges of invasion of privacy. But while the list still hasn’t been checked for tax evaders, he is being prosecuted again.
One of the missing names was reportedly that of Eleni Papaconstantinou, a leading corporate lawyer and partner in a family firm founded by Papaconstantinou’s late uncle Michalis, who served as foreign minister in the 1990’s. His cousin Eleni was appointed this year to the advisory board of TAIPED, the Greek agency heading a long-delayed privatization of national properties and entities aimed at bringing in as much as 50 billion euros ($65.9 billion).
The scandal has prompted criticism that the Socialist government of former Prime Minister Papandreou shouldn’t have let Papaconstantinou handle the list. The Financial Times said that a senior Greek official said that, “The finance minister should not have been personally involved in the process, it was a matter to be handled by the justice minister and the financial police.”
An opinion poll by Kapa research showed growing disgust by Greeks with the runaway tax evasion scandals that continue to engulf the country while the government presses ahead with more pay cuts, tax hikes and slashed pensions demanded by international lenders in return for more bailout loans.
(Sources: Kathimerini, Reuters, AP)
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