tax office

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.