Corruption and anthrax: The sorry end of a “city farm”

On July 4 news spread rapidly that several people had become infected by anthrax, which is called lépfene in Hungarian. “Fene” here most likely means something like “trouble” while “lép” means “spleen.” Apparently the spleens of infected people become enlarged.

Anthrax spores are formed by anthrax bacteria that occur naturally in the soil. These spores remain dormant for years until they find their way into a host: sheep, cattle, horses, and goats. Anthrax is rare in Canada and the United States but common in the developing world. Hungary had several outbreaks of anthrax over the last few years.

One can be affected by the anthrax bacteria by eating undercooked meat from an infected animal, by inhalation when one breathes in anthrax spores, or through the skin. Infection by inhalation is the most deadly way to contract the disease. That’s why we see pictures of health workers covered from head to toe while working at the scene where the infected animals were grazing or were slaughtered.

It seems that the owner of the cattle farm noticed as early as June 21 that something was wrong with some of his animals, and at least one had to be slaughtered due to severe illness. On July 1 there was another sick animal who had to be killed. No veterinarian saw them and no health official inspected the meat of the slaughtered animals.

Once the anthrax outbreak became public knowledge newspapermen invaded Tiszafüred where the first anthrax outbreak occurred. Tiszafüred is a favorite spot for vacationers who want to take advantage of Tisza tó, a large artificial lake second in size only to Lake Balaton. Very few people were ready to talk, but reporters eventually learned that the owner of City Farm in Kócsújfalu is new at animal husbandry. He purchased about 100 cows, a Hungarian variety called “magyar tarka,” only a few months ago. Where the cattle came from is not clear. Zoltán Gőgös, former MSZP undersecretary in the ministry of agriculture, seems to know that the Hungarian owner purchased the animals in Romania. He also claims to know that the owner, instead of  immediately placing the sick animals in the compulsory three-month quarantine, immediately began slaughtering them.

This is what the "magyar tarka" looks like. Excellent for meat and for milk production

This is what the “magyar tarka” looks like. Excellent for meat and milk production

The first five or six people who became ill were butchers who handled the meat. Later it turned out that the meat was sold to a company that supplies food to the municipality of Tiszafüred, which provides lunches for 88 needy children in town. Since then the town of Tiszafüred broke its contract with the company. Another purchaser was a restaurant called “Nemzeti Étterem,” whose owner, I assume, must be a great Fidesz supporter judging from the name of his restaurant.

News spread that the authorities actually kept the anthrax infection a secret for three or four days, something the Ministry of Agriculture hotly denied in a communiqué that appeared on the ministry’s website on July 4. In it Róbert Zsigó, former Fidesz spokesman and mayor of Baja, claims that as soon as the anthrax infection became known the authorities took all necessary steps. Since symptoms of anthrax infection appear about a week after the time of contact with the sick animal and it was on July 2 that anthrax was diagnosed in five patients, it is likely that the infection was spread by the animal that was slaughtered on the 21st of June.

The locals were not too communicative when journalists wanted to know more about the owner of City Farm. They did say, however, that the owner is a well-off man who lives in a big and expensive house. LMP politicians soon discovered that the owner of the herd of cattle is József Nagy, who just recently received 250 hectares from the Hungarian government to raise cattle. His case is similar to hundreds of others where people with good connections to party and government leaders received tracts of land without knowing the first thing about animal husbandry or agriculture.

Soon enough it became known who the “godfather” of József Nagy is: Sándor Fazekas, the minister of agriculture, himself. LMP was not alone in its detective work; Jobbik also looked into Nagy’s government connections. They discovered that Nagy’s other business venture also received government subsidies. Since then it became known that Nagy is on very friendly terms with Mihály Varga, minister of national economy.

Everywhere you look you find corruption. In most cases only the locals know all the details of suspicious land transactions. Only in glaring cases like this one does the news of corruption surface and spread nationwide.

Indeed, corruption is everywhere and on all levels. After following the trail of the infected meat, it turned out that it was not only József Nagy who was guilty of negligence but also the owner of the company that provided meat to the town of Tiszafüred. One corrupt businessman, Nagy, phoned the other corrupt one, Tamás Ábrahám, on June 23 and inquired whether he was interested in some beef at a bargain price. He was and purchased 100 kg of it on the very same day. Ábrahám apparently didn’t ask for the meat inspector’s certification but relied on Nagy’s verbal assurance that all was in order. Ábrahám and Nagy know each other through soccer. Ábrahám established a local soccer club and Nagy was one of its sponsors.

According to the latest intelligence József Nagy’s herd of cattle is shrinking in size. Lately apparently several animals had to be slaughtered, including the bull that was to assure the future of the cattle farm. He ended up in the carcass pit. His ear tag, which should have had the information that would have identified him, was missing. I wonder why.

Another corrupt official: The minister of national development and his “businesses”

Today’s scandal involves the newly appointed minister of national development. In case you get confused with all the “national” stuff, this is the ministry that was led in the last couple of years by the mysterious Mrs. László Németh. The one nobody had heard of before and the one who had only a high school education.

In 2010 when the ministry was created it looked as if the minister initially appointed to head this new ministry was destined to play a major role in the affairs of the Orbán government. Viktor Orbán appointed his former professor and senior adviser Tamás Fellegi to the post. Fellegi, especially at the beginning, traveled madly back and forth between Beijing, Moscow, and Budapest. It was also this ministry that was supposed to handle the subsidies coming from the European Union. After a few months, however, Fellegi’s job of dealing with China and Russia was taken over by the prime minister himself and Péter Szijjártó, the young “genius” of Orbán’s inner circle. Fellegi resigned or was let go. Then came Mrs. Németh and with her a total lack of transparency about the activities of the department. She was presumably unable to handle such a high position in a “key ministry.” She was the only minister whose tenure Orbán decided to terminate this year.

The new minister is Miklós Seszták , a member of the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP). The appointment raised some eyebrows for at least two reasons. One was Seszták’s lack of any background in economics, finance, or administration. He is a small-town lawyer. Actually the only one in his hometown, Kisvárda (pop. 16,000), 22 km from the Ukrainian-Hungarian border. And the second problem was Seszták’s less than sterling record as a lawyer; he has been linked to some very shady business ventures.

Viktor Orbán had to be aware of Seszták’s participation in suspected corruption cases because at least since January 2013 his name had been all over the newspapers. Miklós Seszták was involved with an EU financed venture which the European Commission’s European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) found fraudulent. This was not the first time that the EU questioned the allocation of grants, but the Hungarian government normally protested or at least tried to explain them away. This time there was no question and the Orbán government did not contest the allegations.

The story goes as follows. There were five companies that received 21.25 billion forints from the EU to develop broadband internet access. But there was a bit of a problem. All five companies were established only a couple of weeks before they applied for the grant and some of the owners overlapped. In addition, Seszták happened to be a member of the board of one of these companies, Enternet Invest Zrt.

Miklós Seszták / Photo MTI

Miklós Seszták / Photo MTI

Miklós Seszták has considerable experience in establishing companies; as it turned out, his services were used to set up over 800 bogus companies in the last decade. The story goes back to 2005 when Figyelő, a respectable paper dealing with business and finance, reported that these companies were all registered under two addresses in Kisvárda where Miklós Seszták had his law office. When the reporter visited the two family houses, they found a middle-aged woman, Erzsébet Kovács, who hailed from Ukraine. When asked, Kovács announced that she is handling an international business venture that concentrates on direct marketing. The business has partners in ninety different countries and for easier communication and flow of goods it was necessary to register these foreign nationals in Hungary just as the Hungarian companies are registered in those countries where they have business interests. When the reporter inquired from APEH, the tax office, he was told that everything was in perfect order with these companies. Nothing illegal was going on. It seems that APEH did not find it odd that all the owners of these companies were citizens of countries outside the European Union. Russians and Ukrainians.

By 2009 Index found that the largest “company cemetery” was in Kisvárda. Why are they called “company cemeteries”? Because not long after their establishment and registration they disappear. In one of the Kisvárda addresses four-fifths of the 550 companies were already liquidated while at the other address three-fourths of the 201 companies were gone.

According to Index‘s updated account, 700-800 companies were registered at three different addresses in Kisvárda. Index claims that the “company cemeteries” were still functioning between 2007 and 2009, by which time four-fifths of them were liquidated, leaving substantial debts behind. All three buildings belong to Miklós Seszták. In one of them, in addition to the phony businesses, one could find until recently the local Fidesz office.

Establishing phony companies must have been a lucrative business. At least Seszták did very well financially in the last decade or so. It was only in 1996 that he opened his law office in Kisvárda, and he couldn’t have amassed a fortune from an ordinary small-town practice. Yet today he is one of the richest members of parliament.

LMP, Együtt-PM, DK, and Jobbik are demanding Seszták’s resignation. MSZP has said nothing as yet. What will happen? I assume what normally happens when a Fidesz scandal hits the newsstands. Fidesz acts if nothing has happened. They are sure that eventually the noise will die down and everything will go on its merry way, including Seszták’s appointment. And they are right. In any other country such scandals would have brought down the government years ago. But not in Orbán’s Hungary. I don’t know what is needed for the Hungarian people to wake up and say: no more!