Return to the “Hungarian Watergate”
It was on September 12, 2008, that I first reported on a scandal that I dubbed the "Hungarian Watergate." But while in the United States Watergate ended in the resignation of President Richard Nixon, the Hungarian Watergate's fate has been shaping up very differently in the last two and a half years. "The bad guys" have morphed into the good guys and the good guys into the bad.
To summarize the events, the National Security Office under the socialist-liberal government became suspicious that a company called UD Zrt. was engaged in illegally gathering government secrets. Among the evidence were tapes of several telephone conversations between the owners of the firm and Ervin Demeter, had who been minister in charge of the National Security Office in the first Orbán government. The men had a longstanding relationship, going back to the days when the owners of UD Zrt. were still part of the Hungarian national security team. In these telephone conversations Ervin Demeter asked the owners of the company to spy on the socialist-liberal government in order to gather certain information that the opposition wanted to have.
But Demeter wasn't the only one who had close ties with the owners of UD Zrt. There were several telephone conversations between them and László Kövér, one of the most important men in Fidesz who also held the post of minister in charge of the National Security Office. He was more circumspect on the telephone than Demeter, his successor, but it was clear from the conversations that were available for a while on the Internet that these politicians and the former national security guys were great pals. Other people were also involved. For example, Sándor Csányi, head of the biggest Hungarian bank, OTP, and a great friend of Viktor Orbán, who almost sounded on the phone as if he were "the boss" of the whole organization.
In any case, at first it looked like an open and shut case, but it turned out that with the help of the prosecutors it was UD Zrt. that came out victorious in this tug of war between people allegedly working for Fidesz and the government. Eventually the accused was not UD Zrt. or Ervin Demeter but the socialist minister György Szilvássy and the head of the National Security Office. UD Zrt. was found completely innocent according to the Hungarian prosecutor's office. This decision came after a mere six days of investigation. As time went by the prosecutors found another "guilty" man, Károly Tóth, deputy chairman of the parliamentary committee in charge of national security. So, today these two men stand accused instead of Demeter, Kövér, or the owners of UD Zrt.
The charge against Szilvássy and Tóth is "misuse of personal information" (személyes adattal való visszaélés). How? The members of the parliamentary committee demanded the CD that contained the telephone conversations that were recorded legally. Szilvássy, as minister, was obliged to hand the CD over to the members of the committee. Once they received the information, the Fidesz members illegally put some of the material online.
Today four "witnesses" were called. All Fidesz politicians, including the almighty speaker of the house, László Kövér. Reading the Index report on the proceedings I could imagine how furious Kövér must have been when the judge asked him some rather embarrassing questions. The judge, Csaba Vasvári, didn't seem to be awed by the presence of the "very important man." The Fidesz witnesses talked all over creation, further deepening some people's suspicion that something is very fishy about this whole case.
The first question was when Kövér and Demeter first learned about the case. This is an important question because in September 2008 it looked as if Demeter and Kövér knew about the impending trouble before the affair became public. Kövér testified that he first heard about it on September 12, shortly before it became public, from György Bakondi, lawyer for UD Zrt. Demeter came up with a different story: he heard it from a journalist of Népszabadság. Too bad that he couldn't remember the journalist's name and that Szilvássy swore under oath that he had not given out any information to the media prior to the official announcement of the affair. The judge gave Demeter five days to refresh his memory.
Kövér also had a hard time with the judge who kept asking why it was so important for the lawyer of UD Zrt. to inform him about the search at the headquarters of UD Zrt. if his relationship with the owners of the firm was as casual and sporadic as he claimed. Kövér's answer was anything but satisfactory. He claimed that he knew at that very moment that the whole UD Zrt. affair would be shown in a light that would be very negative for Fidesz and Bakondi, the lawyer, wanted "to prepare him psychologically and verbally" for what was afoot. Apparently, Kövér's claim that he knew very little about the activities of UD Zrt. didn't impress the judge.
One of the specific charges originally brought against Demeter and UD Zrt. was that Demeter asked the owner of UD Zrt., József Horváth, a former secret service man, to find out more about the head of the National Security Office and his trips to Moscow. Apparently, information concerning such trips anywhere outside of Hungary is considered to be a state secret. However, the Fidesz witnesses, former ministers in charge of the office, couldn't decide what the real situation was. According to Kövér it wasn't a state secret while Demeter said that it depended on the trip. In reality, it is a state secret. It already was when Kövér was minister between 1998 and 2000.
The judge wanted to know from Demeter why he thought that Horváth knew anything about trips made by the head of the office. Demeter's answer was curious: it is a well-known fact that there is a "pensioners' club" made up of former National Security Office people where information of that sort can be picked up. But there was a bit of trouble in connection with this pensioners' club. Horváth, when asked by the judge, simply denied the very existence of such a club. The men just chit-chatted among themselves while drinking a few glasses of beer. At this point the judge expressed his astonishment that people while having a few drinks would talk about the foreign trips of heads of the secret service. He asked Horváth again: how did they know about such things? Answer: "I don't know."
But that wasn't the end of the conflicting statements. When it came to the question of whether the CD had been marked "not for the public," Kövér claimed that it had already been opened up and therefore there was no marking on it. Demeter, on the other hand, claimed that it was clearly marked "not for the public." Simicskó, the chairman of the parliamentary committee that received the CD, many times with full conviction repeated that the CD had this marking, but his statement collapsed when he was read his earlier testimony (December 10, 2008) in which he categorically denied that there was anything on the CD.
When one reads the detailed description of the proceedings and the judge's questions, one can understand why Fidesz would like to get rid of about 300 judges and replace them with new "blood" that wouldn't ask such probing questions from the witnesses. I don't know how old Csaba Vasvári is, but if he is too young to be forcibly retired the current government will most likely find other ways to make his life miserable.