NAV

Is Viktor Orbán playing chicken?

It was only yesterday that a lengthy psychological portrait entitled “The Patient’s Name is Viktor Orbán” appeared in Népszabadság under the pseudonym Iván Mester. The author is an associate professor, I assume of psychology or psychiatry, at an unnamed university. In this article “Mester” states that because of his character traits Orbán “is unable to stop … he is insatiable.” What is going on in front of our eyes is a manifestation of his inability to let go. He has to win against all odds.

This afternoon the latest episode of this “drama” (because I’m convinced that for the prime minister this is a real drama) took place in parliament. According to house rules, Orbán had to appear in parliament to answer questions personally. Gergely Bárándy (MSZP) wanted to know “who is lying” about the corruption case involving six Hungarian citizens, of whom at least three are high officials in the Hungarian equivalent of the Internal Revenue Service. Bárándy wanted to know whether it is true that the Hungarian government knows what these people are accused of by the U.S. government. The exchange can be read in an abbreviated form on the web site of the Prime Minister’s Office.

As Orbán explained, the U.S. chargé d’affaires claims that the president of the Nemzeti Adó- és Vámhivatal (NAV) can be personally tied to corruption involving an American firm doing business in Hungary. “According to Hungarian law, in a case like that one ought to start legal proceedings. This is what I expect from the president of NAV. If she does not do so without delay, I will replace her.” In Hungary a person found guilty of corruption does not get replaced but is locked up, said Orbán. “So, the stakes are high.” If the American diplomat can prove the charge and the court finds her guilty, then the head of NAV will be incarcerated. “But if, on the other hand, the American diplomat’s charges are untrue there will be consequences.”

Viktor Orbán is forging ahead

Viktor Orbán is forging ahead

Bárándy pointed out in his rebuttal that the lawsuit Orbán is recommending cannot take place in Hungary. The only solution is what André Goodfriend, the U.S. chargé, has repeatedly recommended to Ildikó Vida, the head of NAV. She should apply for a visa at the U.S. Embassy in Budapest, whereupon she would be told the reasons for her ban.

Orbán countered that if an American chargé accuses a Hungarian official of a crime, he cannot “hide behind his diplomatic immunity. He should be a man and accept responsibility for his claims.”

What the official government version of the exchange did not mention but Népszabadság included in its coverage was the following dialogue between Orbán and Bárándy. The MSZP member of parliament asked whether Orbán “can venture to state that the Hungarian government and authorities have no knowledge of the nature of the cases that resulted in barring the president of NAV from the territory of the United States.” Orbán did not answer this question. Instead, he stressed that the solution lies “in the world of the law,” which in my opinion is a confirmation of the government’s knowledge of the American allegations.

André Goodfriend, as usual, responded promptly by posting a short note on Twitter: “US & Hungary have excellent legal cooperation, including a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty.” And indeed, back in 2009 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Balázs signed the Protocols of Exchange of Instruments of Ratification for the 2005 U.S.-Hungary Mutual Legal Assistance Protocols and the U.S.-Hungary Extradition Treaty. Clinton said at the time that “these twin agreements will give our police and prosecutors in both countries state-of-the-art tools to cooperate more effectively in bringing criminals to justice on both sides of the Atlantic. They form part of a network of similar agreements that the United States has reached with all the countries of the European Union.” Balázs, for his part, stressed the close cooperation between the two countries.

In addition to the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty, Goodfriend called attention to a legal guide for judges written by a lawyer specializing in international litigation. The message is that Hungary should turn to the United States asking for official legal assistance. Apparently, the Hungarian prosecutor’s office did ask for assistance but the request was not official. Details of the differences between the two can be found in an earlier article in 444.hu.

The question is what Viktor Orbán is trying to achieve by this latest move. Among my knowledgeable friends one thinks that the foxy prime minister is trying to find an excuse to fire Ildikó Vida because “he knows that she is guilty.” My answer to this supposition is that of course Viktor Orbán knows full well that she is corrupt because she was put there for the very purpose of running a corrupt organization. That is part of her job description. She is there as the emissary of a corrupt government headed by the prime minister himself. Another friend, following the same line of reasoning, thinks that Vida’s refusal to sue Goodfriend will give Orbán an opportunity to fire Vida in such a way that he will not be seen as bending under U.S. pressure. This way he will save face. I don’t see much merit in that hypothesis either. What prevents Ildikó Vida from bringing charges against Goodfriend? Nothing. She can certainly try. It could happen that the court refuses to hear the case, but this would not be Vida’s fault. She sued, just as Orbán demanded. Another possibility would be if the Hungarian courts decided to hear the case but the United States government forbade Goodfriend from appearing in court. Thus he would be a man who does not accept responsibility for his claims, to use Orbán’s words. In my opinion that would be the best scenario as far as Viktor Orbán is concerned. And, as opposed to my friends, I believe this is exactly what he is planning to do. What do you think?

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.

The Orbán government presses on

Some stories simply refuse to die. Although I have spent more time than usual on the corruption case involving the Hungarian tax authority (NAV), the American corporation Bunge (the complainant), and a Fidesz-established foundation called Századvég, which one of its former associates called a front for money laundering, I think I ought to say a few more words about the latest developments.

Today a new list of possible subjects of the U.S. ban was published by NépszabadságIn addition to Ildikó Vida, chair of NAV, three deputy chairpersons are on the list. All three are women: Mrs. Dezső Csillag, Marianna Dávida, and Katalin Somos. The fifth person is most likely Péter Heim, president of Századvég. The sixth person’s identity is still not known, but he is presumed to be an influential businessman. Right after the news broke about the American decision to ban six Hungarians from entering the United States, “an unnamed businessman” rushed to ATV to share the bad news he received from the U.S. embassy. Although hypothetical lists appeared earlier, none of them sounded plausible to me. This one rings true. Now we just have to find out who the influential businessman is.

The opposition parties keep demanding Ildikó Vida’s resignation, and there has been talk about organizing demonstrations to the same end. In my opinion, such demonstrations would be a waste of time and effort. Fidesz functionaries don’t resign under pressure from the opposition. Moreover, most likely Viktor Orbán doesn’t want her to depart right now because that would be a sign of weakness when he just decided to tough it out. At the moment he might be very angry at her for revealing that she told the government about the U.S. decision, but he needs her to keep the tax office working to enrich Fidesz.

I might add here that I’m becoming more and more convinced that APEH/NAV was an instrument of Fidesz’s money collecting scheme even between 2002 and 2010 when the party was in opposition. Of course, since then the financial opportunities have become much greater. Now not only pressure on businesses yields kickbacks but also huge amounts of public money from government sources land at Századvég and from there go God knows where. The Eötvös Károly Intézet, a legal think tank, wanted to review the “studies” ordered by the Ministry of National Development from Századvég. Unfortunately, they were unable to get hold of the studies, but they managed to learn the exact amount of money Századvég received from the ministry between January 1, 2011 and June 30, 2012. According to the information, the ministry paid out 939,632,750 Ft. and still owed 5,936,845 Ft. Given the personnel and the capacity of Századvég, EKInt figured that the ministry paid 470,000 Ft. (almost $1900) per page for studies ordered by the ministry. Századvég’s answer was that they also provided other kinds of services to the ministry. Of course.

"Good morning my sunshine!" Source: veranus.blog.hu

“Good morning my sunshine!”
Source: veranus.blog.hu

It is equally useless for the opposition to turn to the chief prosecutor for remedies as two Együtt-PM members of parliament tried to do today. They were politely called in for a personal meeting with Péter Polt, who explained to them that his office cannot do a thing as long as they don’t know the exact charges. He wrote a letter to the U.S. attorney general and, if he reveals the details, they will certainly act. Of course, Polt knows perfectly well that the U.S. attorney general can’t release the details. So, that argument is pretty safe. Polt also reassured them that investigations have been going on for some time at NAV and that Ildikó Vida is in no way involved with the cases under investigation. So, this is yet another dead end.

Corruption may not move massive crowds, but internet users may yet have reason to take to the streets. If my reading of the bits and pieces of information that are being released about internet usage is correct, something might be in the offing that is much worse than a steep usage tax. I read with some suspicion that László L. Simon, undersecretary in charge of culture, would like “to improve” the quality of the internet. He also drew attention to the dangers lurking online and called on young people to leave cyberspace and join real-world groups. The fact that Tamás Deutsch is still entrusted with a “national consultation” on the issue of the internet also points in that direction.

Besides the internet, potential protesters should keep an eye on the the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP)’s harebrained idea to close larger chains on Sundays. I’m hoping that the government will not fall for this proposal because of its adverse economic consequences, but anything is possible from this crew. I bet a lot of people would gather for a demonstration against closing the plazas and the malls on Sundays.

Another suggestion to keep pressure on the government is a large demonstration against closing half of the gymnasiums and forcing students into inferior trade schools. Parents, students, and teachers would make a hefty crowd.

There are no governmental checks to Orbán’s drive to create a national illiberal democracy where freedoms are being compromised and increasing numbers of people are living in poverty. Parliament is under firm Fidesz control, and the constitutional court has been packed with Fidesz judges. Only the people can speak against this regime, but they must pick their causes wisely for maximum effectiveness.

The corrupt Hungarian tax authority

Since the fate of the internet tax is still pending, let’s turn to the systemic corruption that has a debilitating effect on the entire Hungarian economy. The existence of corruption on all levels of the administration didn’t escape the attention of the demonstrators who were brought to the street by their concern over the government’s plans to restrict access to the internet through onerous taxation. They protested against the “mafia government” and chanted slogans about thieves who become rich off their own hard-earned money. They deplored the activities of the corrupt officials of NAV, the Hungarian equivalent of the American IRS. NAV spends untold millions if not billions trying to track down small fry while letting the big fish off the hook. Or worse, it is alleged, high officials of NAV receive kickbacks from corrupt businessmen for services rendered. And what is the most disturbing about this whole story is that the highest officeholders of the government party, Fidesz, have known about these fraudulent activities–and have benefited from them–for years.

How can I say with such confidence that members of the government and the party have been aware of these illegal activities for a long time? Almost a year ago András Horváth, an employee of NAV, spilled the beans. He collected evidence that proved that certain crooked businessmen were receiving preferential treatment by NAV. In the wake of Horváth’s revelations nothing happened. After a quick internal investigation, NAV declared that Horváth’s accusations were baseless. And, for good measure, they fired Horváth. Soon enough the police arrived at Horváth’s apartment and took away the evidence.

The fraud that high NAV officials “overlooked” involved all sorts of financial shenanigans that resulted in Hungarian businessmen not paying the admittedly very high 27% value added tax on certain agricultural products like sugar and cooking oil. With that move, and with the active assistance of the Hungarian tax office, these crooked Hungarian businessmen gained a considerable advantage over their main competitor, the American firm Bunge. These Hungarian businessmen were the ones András Horváth was talking about and who are now, after the American revelations, suddenly  in custody. Without the American announcement to ban certain individuals from entering the U.S. these people would still be writing out their fraudulent bills of sale. The thoroughly corrupt Orbán government had no intention of doing anything about the crooked businessmen or, as it turned out, the equally corrupt tax officials. The American ban is invoked only in countries where there is no hope for justice because the government itself is corrupt. Usually third-world countries.

With the American revelations Horváth’s accusations were corroborated. Horváth and Goodfriend obviously were talking about the same cast of characters. But the Americans added another crucial piece of information that Horváth couldn’t have known about: high NAV officials offered their services to the CEO of Bunge for 2 billion Hungarian forints, to be paid to a foundation with ties to Fidesz. In return, they offered a lowered VAT on foodstuffs, a demand of long-standing by the honest producers of sugar and cooking oil. For this sum they also offered to go after Bunge’s competition.

The government’s reaction to all these revelations is fascinating. First, government officials–most notably Mihály Varga, minister of national economy who is in charge of NAV–focused on the corrupt businessmen, ignoring the NAV officials. Why is the Hungarian government accused of doing nothing? After all, three or four people are already in custody. When asked about Ildikó Vida, the corrupt head of NAV who was seen at Vienna’s airport leaving for an unknown destination, he played the innocent. Vida is taking her vacation, to which she is entitled. To the question whether Ildikó Vida is banned from the United States as rumored, Varga announced with a straight face and a hefty dose of the exculpatory conditional, that if she were, surely she would have reported this fact to him as she is supposed to.

Who is this Ildikó Vida? She, like almost all Fidesz bigwigs, lived in the countryside before she entered law school in Budapest. (One reason for the heavy concentration of non-Budapesters among the original Fidesz leaders is that they lived in university dormitories.) Vida was also a member of the by now famous Bibó College which Orbán; Lajos Simicska, former treasurer of Fidesz and now a wealthy businessman; László Kövér, president of the parliament; and József Szájer, a member of the European parliament, attended.

Ildikó Vida at her desk

Ildikó Vida at her desk

As one Hungarian media outlet complained, we know very little about the president of NAV. She does not have a large Internet presence and NAV’s webpage has no biographies of the organization’s top leaders. However, she seems to be a very important person in Orbán’s mafia state.

About a month ago a long study by atlatszo.hu, one of those NGOs who receive money from the Norwegian Civil Fund and whom the government is trying to defund, identified the key persons who “captured the Hungarian state.” Ildikó Vida is among them. She must know about the siphoning of public money into Fidesz coffers and most likely into Fidesz politicians’ own pockets as well. Lajos Simicska, whom Orbán called a “financial genius” but who elsewhere would be considered a criminal, was put in charge of the tax office in 1998 as soon as Orbán won the elections. His job was to get rid of all the incriminating evidence about the illegal financial activities of Fidesz-owned businesses that folded and were subsequently “sold” to people unreachable by Hungarian authorities so their unpaid taxes couldn’t be collected. Ildikó Vida was one of Simicska’s deputies and, once Simicska left a year later, Vida became the head of the almighty APEH, the predecessor to NAV. Most people assume that APEH under Vida was no better than NAV is today. I assume that then, just as now, the tax office serves three purposes. One is to assist certain businessmen close to Fidesz to gain an advantage over their competitors by closing their eyes to their fraudulent activities. The second function is to extract money from business leaders, part of which goes to party coffers through an intermediary, like a foundation. And third, the tax office frightens certain persons and businesses Fidesz does not deem friendly to the party and the government into submission. In brief, the picture is grim–and I suspect we don’t know the half of it.

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.

What do sugar distribution and drag racing have in common? A lot

Perhaps there is hope yet for investigative journalism in Hungary. When in the mid-1990s I first encountered an article that was supposed to uncover corruption in the police force I was appalled. The author didn’t seem to be aware of the most basic rules of what we used to call expository writing. Moreover, she was so sloppy that she didn’t even bother to learn the simplest facts of the case. I decided to write to her, going through her article practically sentence by sentence. As if she had been a student of mine who wrote a very, very bad essay on some historical topic. After I sent off the e-mail I was sure that I had made an enemy for life. But no, I received a very cordial answer in which she thanked me for my thorough critique of her work. We even stayed in touch for a while: I continued to criticize, and she continued to improve.

In general, however, Hungarian investigative journalism didn’t improve. Investigative articles and even books on the mostly dirty business affairs of Hungarian politicians were still sketchy and largely incomprehensible. One got the impression that the authors had only a vague sense of the complicated legal and business connections they were writing about. Mind you, they were trying to untangle business activities that were intentionally designed to be inscrutable.

So I was happy to read an article in Index by Miklós Jenei the other day that seemed to have uncovered more about a company’s questionable business practices in a couple of weeks than the National Tax and Customs Administration of Hungary (NAV) managed to do in years with its 23,000 employees.

Jenei decided to focus on sugar because András Horváth, the whistleblower at the Hungarian tax authority, mentioned sugar as one of the favorite commodities of the VAT scammers who make millions if not billions by reclaiming their non-existent value added taxes. He visited quite a few large supermarkets and compared prices. He found a Slovak-Hungarian brand called Sovereign which cost 20-30 ft less than the others. This particular brand was produced by Sovereign Slovakia s.r.o. and was sold at Tesco, Lidl, and some other outlets. The price of Sovereign sugar is 229 at Tesco and 200 ft at Lidl.

According to their website, the company was established in 2009 and the owner is Majorbiz Inc. (Seychelle Islands). The CEO is Ilona Ollé Agh. The reporter is fairly certain that the sugar actually comes from Hungary but that for one reason or other it is more profitable for the owners of Sovereign to transport the sugar to Okoč/Ekecs in Slovakia, a village which is almost entirely inhabited by Hungarians, for packaging.

Jenei managed to discover the wholesale price of sugar per ton by posing as a CEO of a sugar distributor. As a result, he came to the conclusion that no one can buy sugar from the factory for less than 185 forints per kilogram. The supermarkets refused to reveal the price they pay for Sovereign sugar, but our investigator figures that Tesco most likely pays 180 and Lidl 173 forints per kilogram. So, something doesn’t add up.

It turns out that over the last few years there were several companies with the name Sovereign. Several of them dealt with sugar packaging. All of them also had business interests in the sale of cars. Almost all of them had their share of trouble with the Hungarian tax authorities. And all of them shared the same address on Farkastorki utca in District III in Budapest. It is a small apartment on the ground floor. These various Sovereign businesses came and went after amassing millions in unpaid taxes. The authorities would regularly shutter the delinquent business, but within a few months a new business with a slightly different name would spring up. The CEOs also appeared and disappeared. One such CEO was Szilvia Marisz who claims that she is a bookkeeper; when Index‘s reporter finally got hold of her he could hear a baby crying in the background. Her successor was a 63-year-old fellow who had interests in thirteen companies of different sorts. Most of them are no longer in existence.

Lately a new company was registered at the same apartment on Farkastorki utca: Tull Trade Kereskedelmi és Szolgáltató Kft. Its owner is Sándor Esztocsák, who had earlier connections with Sovereign. Tull’s business was fabulously profitable. In 2010 it grossed 551 million forints, which is not bad for a company run by one man, Esztocsák, who obviously came cheap: he had the modest salary of 282,000 per year.

What is the connection between Tull and the packaging company in Slovakia? The link seems to be Jenő Rujp, head of the Sovereign Racing Team Kft, a company that also has its headquarters in the ground-floor apartment on Farkastorki utca. The company is involved with drag racing and maintains a sailing team as well as a band. The racers were badly behind with their taxes and therefore their business permit was cancelled. But no problem. They changed the name to Sovereign Sugar Hungary and Rujp ostensibly left the company. This last company with a new CEO is the distributor of Sovereign Sugar.

Sovereign at a drag racing meet

Sovereign at a drag racing meet

Quite a saga! Naturally, Index tried to avoid drawing any conclusions from the findings of Miklós Jenei, but it seems to me that the “sugar business” serves primarily as a vehicle for making enough money–thanks to major funding from the unwitting Hungarian taxpayers–to keep up the expensive habits of some of the characters in the story.

The plight of a Hungarian whistleblower

It was a month ago that András Horváth, a former employee of NAV (Nemzeti Adó- és Vámhivatal/National Office of Taxation and Customs), turned to the prosecutor’s office to report a breach of fiduciary duties committed by the top management of this 23,000-employee office. He claimed that large-scale cheating goes on with fictitious VAT reimbursement payments, especially in the case of large commodity distributors and food chains, both multinational and domestic. The figures Horváth was talking about are staggering. He estimates the loss of revenue at 1.7 trillion forints a year.

Since then András Horváth has been in the news constantly. There has been hardly a day that he wasn’t in the electronic media, and thousands of articles have appeared about what is called the NAV scandal. Some people predicted that this affair might bring down the Orbán government, which I very much doubt. These guys are far too foxy to trip over such a “trifling” item as a 1.7 trillion forint fraud.

On November 19 I reported about the affair in as much detail as was available at the time. Predictably, since then politics entered the fray. The first party that offered assistance to Horváth was András Schiffer’s LMP. Schiffer is a lawyer who made sure that Horváth had good legal counsel. At the same time LMP began an effort to get the 78 signatures necessary to set up a parliamentary committee to investigate Horváth’s allegations. MSZP and DK were reluctant to join forces with Jobbik in calling for the committee, which I think was a mistake. I understand that the overwhelming majority of DK’s membership shared my opinion. Well, by the end they managed to get the 78 signatures without current Jobbik members, but Fidesz boycotted a hearing that was supposed to question Horváth on the details. Later Fidesz thwarted the opposition’s effort to set up the committee, claiming  that the existence of such a committee is illegal when a criminal investigation is already underway. I don’t want to delve into the legal complexities of the issue, but legal experts claim that Fidesz as usual was not exactly on the up and up on this issue. Moreover, as it turned out, Horváth was never informed of the investigation launched against him, and his report to the prosecutor’s office on the wrongdoings of the management of NAV wasn’t followed up with any investigation.

Meanwhile direct evidence was mounting that underscored Horváth’s claims. Economic Minister Mihály Varga, under whose ministry NAV operates, admitted in response to a question posed to him by a couple of LMP MPs that NAV investigated only the distributors, not the food chains themselves. This is exactly what Horváth was talking about.

For two years Horváth tried to call attention to the wholesale tax fraud at NAV. He approached several top Fidesz politicians. For example, Antal Rogán and János Lázár. I don’t know why he didn’t go to the Ministry of National Economy where Gábor Orbán, no relation to Viktor, is the undersecretary in charge of taxes and finance in general. Perhaps he had his reasons, although yesterday he said that it wasn’t the government that put pressure on NAV but influential businessmen, oligarchs as he called them.

Yesterday was no ordinary day for the poor Hungarian whistleblower. Out of the blue, at 7:30 a.m., four detectives arrived at Horváth’s apartment and took his famous green dossier, which he carried everywhere he went, claiming that all the information he has is in that folder. For good measure they also took the hard drive from his computer as well as his notebook with the names and telephone numbers of journalists, politicians, and lawyers with whom he has been in contact lately. The sudden and apparently illegal raid reminded people of the surprise visits from the state security authorities during the Rákosi period. They usually arrived at the crack of dawn to arrest people. Everybody agrees that the aim of yesterday’s raid was intimidation. Indeed, Horváth seemed to be genuinely shaken last night when he talked to Olga Kálmán of ATV, although he promised to fight on.

Source: cherispeak.wordpress.com

Source: cherispeak.wordpress.com

It was during during his encounter with the detectives that Horváth learned that a charge had been filed against him: breach of confidentiality. Considering that up to this point Horváth didn’t divulge any details about those companies which were, according to him, purposefully not investigated, it is really questionable whether this charge can be maintained. Later it also became clear that NAV already on December 11 filed a police report against Horváth with the Emergency Police’s National Detective Section, not only in connection with the breach of confidentiality but also with the abrogation of fiduciary duties. They only neglected to inform András Horváth of the charges against him.

A right-wing blog gleefully announced that Horváth might receive a three-year jail term. On the other hand, TASZ, the Hungarian equivalent  of the American Civil Liberties Union, alongside other groups active in the defense of the law like Transparency International, considers the police search most likely illegal. Whistleblowers have appropriate protection in Hungary. According to a 2009 law (Law  CLXIII, Act 21 § (5) “filing for breach of confidentiality cannot be applied unless it was done in bad faith .” That is, if it turns out that Horváth made malicious and unfounded charges. But first his charges must be investigated.

Others rightly compared the case to the UD Zrt. scandal in which the victim, Ibolya Dávid, president of Magyar Demokrata Fórum, a since defunct right-of-center party, ended up being the accused. UD Zrt., most likely at the behest of Fidesz, spied on her and on her party. That was in 2008. By the summer of 2009 she was a defendant, and as of today she still hasn’t been able to clear her name in court. Only recently, after she and her co-defendant Károly Herényi were acquitted, a judge ordered that the whole procedure be started again from the very beginning. Viktor Orbán doesn’t forget easily. He blamed her for his defeat in 2006 when she refused to go along with a joint Fidesz-MDF ticket. But Dávid knew what she was doing. Her experience in a Fidesz-MDF-Smallholders coalition when she was minister of justice taught her a thing or two about how Orbán deals with those whom he needs to acquire power and how he subsequently ruins them.

Viktor Orbán naturally has been fairly quiet on the subject of the possible tax fraud at NAV.  He spent the last two days in Brussels. During the press conference after the meetings he was asked about the scandal. He made no mention of the search and seizure at Horváth’s apartment yesterday morning. Instead he explained why “the state machinery hasn’t moved yet.” He would like “to have answers to three simple questions: who committed what and when.” Can you imagine what would have happened to Horváth if he had obliged and answered these questions? Surely, given how the Hungarian system works, by now he would be in pre-trial detention.