Levente Magyar

No end to the saga of the Hungarian corruption scandal

The reverberations from the news that six Hungarian citizens are not welcome in the United States don’t seem to subside. The perpetuation of the verbal battle is fueled mostly by the Hungarian side. Some of the attacks come straight from politicians, others from the accused and from so-called “civil groups” that are strong supporters of the Orbán government and operate most likely with generous financial assistance from the public purse.

These latter two sources cannot be taken terribly seriously, and in fact as time goes by their originally very loud voices have quieted down somewhat. The most spectacular retreat came from Ildikó Vida, the president of NAV, the Hungarian tax authority, and her lawyer, Barnabás Futó. As one blogger noted, when Barnabás Futó stands next to someone close to Fidesz, that person is in trouble. Futó seems to be rather good at pettifoggery at home, but he is at sea when it comes to international law. Initially he had ambitious plans for getting satisfaction for his client. Since Vida was told by M. André Goodfriend that she can ask for a visa and, if her request is rejected, she might be able to get information about the nature of the charges against her, Futó decided to do just that. Moreover, while he was at it, he contemplated suing the American chargé. Soon enough someone must have told him that members of the diplomatic corps have immunity and that his dreams of his client having her day in court were illusory. He gave up on his plan to sue. And, upon reflection, Vida decided that, after all, she did not want to know any of the details of her alleged wrongdoing and that therefore she will not apply for an American visa.

The other thread in the continuing saga is the Civil Összefogás Fórum (CÖF), an unofficial arm of the government that has helped bolster the popularity of the government. They were the ones who organized the first Békement (Peace March), which was supposed to defend the beleaguered Viktor Orbán against a dark international conspiracy that wanted to remove him from his post during the winter of 2011-12. Ever since the American revelations, the leaders of CÖF, people belonging to the extreme right wing of Fidesz, have been itching to march out again, this time against the United States. However, their beloved leader, to their great regret, held them back.

CÖF’s spokesman, Zoltán Lomnici, Jr, son of the former chief justice of the Supreme Court and a lawyer himself, shows such ignorance of the law that it is simply staggering. He and “Futó Barnabás,” to whom I gave the nickname “futóbolond” (lunatic at large), bring shame to the Hungarian legal profession. Here is Lomnici’s argument: the American chargé is a foreign national who, as can be attested by pictures and videos taken of him, left the embassy of the United States and therefore stepped on Hungarian soil. According to Hungarian law, if he knew of corruption he was supposed to press charges and provide proof of corruption. Since he neglected to do so, he could be sentenced to three years in jail. Obviously our star lawyer hasn’t heard of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (1961). I suggest that Futó and Lomnici study the document, which clearly states that “Diplomats must not be liable to any form of arrest or detention. They are immune from civil or criminal prosecution.” Let’s hope that the text is available in Hungarian because Futó at least does not know any English. Today the organizers of the Peace Marches officially announced that for the time being they will not gather the troops.

Politicians have not shown the same restraint. A few days ago Antal Rogán, the whip of the Fidesz parliamentary caucus, called Goodfriend a liar and announced that Hungary is a country of law, unlike the United States. “We all must declare that Hungary is not Guantánamo, here nobody can be accused without proof.” Rogán’s attack on the United States is most likely part of the game plan dictated from above because not long before Róbert Répássy, undersecretary of the ministry of justice, said exactly the same thing.

Calling everybody a liar who criticizes the Hungarian government is a Fidesz specialty. Diplomats, on the whole, at least in civilized countries, don’t call their foreign colleagues liars. But Hungary’s new foreign minister has no such compunctions. In an interview with Magyar Nemzet he said that “to accuse us of not conforming to the European legal system is a gross lie (orbitális hazugság).” In response to Szijjártó’s charge, the U.S. Embassy in Budapest released a statement today that included the following sentences: “As Charge d’affaires Goodfriend has said, the United States has consistently conveyed our concerns to the Hungarian government about developments that harm the health of democratic institutions, civil society, and media freedom in Hungary – including concerns about corruption,” and “the Embassy remains in close contact with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. We will continue to conduct a constructive, diplomatic dialogue with Hungary on all issues across the broad spectrum of U.S.-Hungarian engagement.” In brief, the United States will not stop its current policy of defending civil society, media freedom, and civil liberties. It will also pursue its fight against corruption.

In addition, today new information reached the public concerning the background of the American ban. The Demokratikus Koalíció, the party that seems to have good connections with the Hungarian foreign ministry where there are many disgruntled employees, learned that a week ago the American embassy did give some information to the Hungarians. Today Szabolcs Kerék-Bárczy, a DK politician, made that information public at a press conference. At this point the foreign ministry decided to fess up: yes, they received something, but it was only a “scrap of paper” (fecni) that cannot be taken seriously. However, a few hours later the ministry made the document public.

Undersecretary Levente Magyar waving "the scrap of paper" from the U.S. Embassy

Undersecretary Levente Magyar waving “the scrap of paper” from the U.S. Embassy

The two-page note describes the history of the numerous encounters between the embassy and the government of Hungary since February 2012. From October 2013 on, the American complaints multiplied. They had meetings with the “criminal directorate of the tax and customs office (NAV) on specific concerns about agricultural VAT fraud and tobacco nationalization.” A few months later the Americans were back at the “criminal directorate” but noticed “no evidence of action” on the part of NAV. In January 2014 the Americans had a meeting with the ministry of justice and public administration and they raised issues of VAT fraud, “institutionalized corruption, whistleblower protections, and Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA).” The whole list of complaints can be found on the foreign ministry’s website as well as in an article published on the subject by Index.

In brief, there were numerous complaints, and the Hungarian authorities refused to investigate. It is also clear from the document that the American authorities were fully aware that corruption is “institutionalized” in Hungary, yet the last word from NAV was that there were “no auditing complaints” and therefore the “Criminal Directorate … was unable to act.” Goodfriend  noted that “NAV’s specialized auditing unit created expressly to investigate trans-border VAT fraud … was systematically undermined and then disbanded.”

It looks to me, and obviously it was evident to the head of the American mission, that not only was no effort made to investigate but that the top leaders at NAV were doing everything in their power to make sure that corrupt activities could be continued undetected.

According to Levente Magyar, undersecretary of the ministry of foreign affairs and trade, this “scrap of paper” cannot be taken seriously. Why not? Because there is no date, no authentication, and above all, no seal. “Missing formal requirement” is a favorite excuse of Hungarian authorities.

American-Hungarian relations are crumbling

Let me summarize what we know so far about the U.S. action against certain Hungarian businessmen and government employees.

Initially it was reported that ten people were banned from entering the United States, but by now that number has been reduced to six. We definitely know of one businessman who reported on his fate to ATV. It was he who mentioned three employees of the Office of Taxation and Customs (NAV). One of the three was allegedly the president of NAV, Anikó Vida. The spokesman for the tax office did not deny the charge. If the number six is correct, there are still two people about whom we know nothing.

Although the Hungarian government feigns total ignorance of the details and keeps repeating that it is unable to move against the corrupt officials, in fact they have known for two weeks about the American resolve to pursue those Hungarians who have been trying to blackmail American firms and extort kickbacks of billions of forints from them.

M. André Goodfriend, chargé d’affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Budapest, sketched the timeline of events this afternoon. According to him, on October 6 he had a talk with Levente Magyar, one of the undersecretaries in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. During the meeting Goodfriend explained the significance of Proclamation 7750, which is an executive order signed by George W. Bush in 2004. The Proclamation gives the State Department power to ban corrupt individuals and their families from entering the United States. Such a ban can be imposed only by the undersecretary for political affairs–in our case by Wendy Sherman, who is the department’s fourth-ranking official. (Here is a handy chart of the structure of the State Department.)

Levente Magyar must have understood the gravity of the situation because a subsequent meeting was arranged at the request of the Hungarian foreign ministry between Péter Szijjártó and André Goodfriend. This meeting took place on October 13. The American chargé repeated everything he had already told Magyar. Szijjártó then insisted that he reveal the names of those would be affected by the ban. Goodfriend in turn explained that the American government never reveals names in cases connected to Proclamation 7750. What the U.S. expects is swift action against the culprits.

Let’s stop here for a minute. I assume that Viktor Orbán was notified immediately after the encounter between Magyar and Goodfriend on October 6, and I also suspect that the prime minister’s advice was to insist on “proof” from the Americans. When that failed, in typical Orbán fashion the decision was made to launch a counterattack. NAV leaked information to Napi Gazdaság, a financial paper owned by Századvég, a consulting firm and think tank close to Fidesz, that the United States is contemplating evoking Proclamation 7750 against certain Hungarian businessmen in retaliation for NAV’s tax probes against certain American firms. If the Hungarian government hadn’t decided on this counterattack, we perhaps would never have found out about the travel ban on the six, still unnamed individuals. Colossally stupid move, but I think it is typical. Viktor Orbán always has to have the last word.

Since October 16, the day that Napi Gazdaság published its article containing the disinformation concocted by the Hungarian government, the controversy between the United States and Hungary has been escalating rapidly. The Hungarians kept insisting on “creditable proof” while the Americans steadfastly refused to fall into the trap. Moreover, while at the beginning the controversy seemed to be connected only to widespread corruption in Hungary, as time went by it became obvious that the United States might also take action against the Orbán government’s increasingly anti-democratic behavior. A day after the appearance of the accusations against American businesses in Napi Gazdaság, an article was published in Foreign Policy magazine from which we learned that “at a meeting last month, the Community [of Democracies] set in motion a process that could result in Hungary’s removal from the council and withdrawal from the Community. If Hungary leaves, it will be an international acknowledgment  that the nation has ceased to be a democracy.”

What is the Community of Democracies? It is a global intergovernmental coalition of states founded in 2000 at the common initiative of Madeleine Albright and Polish foreign minister Bronislaw Geremek. The organization is headed by a Governing Council consisting of 26 countries, among them Hungary. Apparently it was the United States that suggested that Hungary be removed from the Council and perhaps even from the organization. Or perhaps Hungary might consider a voluntary withdrawal from the Community in order to avoid embarrassment. The likelihood of an American initiative in this case was reinforced by André Goodfriend’s observation that such a move might be warranted under the circumstances.

M. André Goodfriend at one of his press conferences

M. André Goodfriend at one of his press conferences

While the Hungarian government is stonewalling, the U.S. chargé d’affaires in Budapest, most likely following instructions from the State Department, is delivering tougher and tougher messages to the Hungarian government during fairly frequent press conferences at the embassy. Perhaps the strongest language could be heard this afternoon when Goodfriend explained the reason for American action. In Hungary prior to 2010 the level of democracy and transparency, especially in comparison to some other post-socialist countries, was high. But while in other countries the trend is toward greater democracy and transparency, in Hungary the opposite is true. “If that trend continues it may reach a level where the United States can no longer cooperate with Hungary as an ally.” Clearly, the United States is not joking–as Antal Rogán assumed only yesterday during an interview.

Let’s return briefly to the three high officials of the Hungarian tax office who most likely are implicated in the case. In what way can they engage in fraud and corruption? Here is an explanation offered by Dávid Jancsics, who is currently conducting research at the City University of New York. His expertise is corruption. He learned from two independent sources that the NAV employees demanded kickbacks from two American companies in exchange for tax breaks and a lower VAT. Apparently they demanded 2 billion forints in exchange for these favors, money that the American companies were supposed to pay to a foundation associated with Fidesz for purposes of “research and analysis.” In addition, the NAV officials promised heavy fines on the American firms’ competitors. When the Americans didn’t bite, the NAV officials began threatening them with tax probes. It was at this point that the firms turned to the American embassy and reported the bribery attempts. The implication of this analysis, if it is accurate, is frightening because in this case the tax office is part and parcel of a corruption scheme that appears to be centrally organized.

This takes us back to an old story about a whistleblower at NAV who claimed that high NAV officials refused to investigate obvious fraud cases. András Horváth, the whistleblower, said that he was mostly involved in investigating companies that dealt in agricultural products. Index came to the conclusion that one of the two American companies in question was Bunge, a leading agribusiness and food company. It is a global firm with 35,000 employees in forty countries, including Hungary. They produce among many other things cooking oil sold in Hungary under the label Vénusz. It was well known that the management of Bunge was very unhappy about the VAT fraud and that their efforts to enlist the help of NAV were fruitless. It is possible that after a lot of complaints from the Bunge management NAV officials offered to do something about the competition’s fraudulent business practices but only at a price.

Hungarian journalists in the last few days have asked several business groups, like the German-Hungarian Chamber of Commerce, about the extent of corruption in Hungary. The answer is that foreign companies have known for years about corruption involving billions. “Hungary is a part of the Balkans” by now, and the situation is only becoming worse. According to foreign business leaders, Hungarian business life is corrupt through and through. Healthy competition is impossible under such circumstances.

Péter Szijjártó is leaving Budapest for Washington tomorrow to meet Victoria Nuland. I wouldn’t like to be in his shoes.