Tax fraud scandal in Hungary

On November 8 a surveyor of taxes, András Horváth, turned to the prosecutor’s office to report a breach of fiduciary duties committed by the top leaders of NAV (Nemzeti Adó- és Vámhivatal/National Office of Taxation and Customs). During his press conference he stood between representatives of two civic groups, Levegő Munkacsoport, an environmental organization, and Vállakozók Érdekvédelmi Szövetsége (VÉSZ), basically a lobby group of small entrepreneurs.

Horváth claimed that large-scale cheating goes on with fictitious VAT reimbursement payments, especially in the case of large multinational and domestic companies. Since Horváth was mostly involved with agricultural products and foodstuffs in general, I assume that the companies he was talking about are mostly large food chains. He claimed that the loss incurred in just this sector of the Hungarian economy amounts to about 1.7 trillion forints per year, more than 10% of the country’s entire yearly budget of 15 trillion forints.

The interest was great at András Horváth initial press conference / Photo Ákos Stiller

The interest was great at András Horváth’s initial press conference
Photo Ákos Stiller

Horváth seems to be a naive soul because before his revelation he turned in his resignation and was expecting to sever relations with NAV only in two months’ time. I guess you will not be surprised to hear that Horváth was immediately dismissed from NAV and that currently NAV is in the process of pressing charges against him.

When Index asked for details from NAV, they were told that tax fraud is usually committed through complicated layers of phony companies and that therefore it is often impossible to find the culprits despite the concerted efforts of NAV’s employees. The spokesman for NAV emphasized that the more than one thousand large multinational and domestic companies actually provide 42% of all tax revenues. These companies are thoroughly investigated.

Yet NAV, either on its own or because of prodding from above, immediately announced an internal investigation. Keep in mind that NAV has 23,000 employees, and yet over the weekend in only two days’ time (November 9-10) the “investigation” turned up nothing. I have the feeling that the internal probe couldn’t have been too thorough.

On Tuesday, November 12, disappointed by the internal investigation of NAV, Horváth put all his trust in the government, emphasizing that he has no political motivations. He just wants the truth to surface. In fact, he was an early Fidesz party member and has old friends in the party from those days. He indicated that he knows two of the “highest dignitaries of the land.” I think he was talking about János Áder and László Kövér. He also said that he wrote two letters to leading politicians in the Prime Minister’s Office and he definitely knows that one reached the person for whom it was intended. I assume again that this was János Lázár. Exactly when Horváth wrote to the person in the Prime Minister’s Office is not clear, but we definitely know that he wrote a long letter to Antal Rogán, head of the Fidesz parliamentary caucus, back in November 2011.

Rogán didn’t seem to remember any such letter. His only recollection was that somebody stopped him in the corridor of the parliament and exchanged a few words with him. But then Horváth released his long, detailed letter which Átlátszó.hu, an investigative online paper, published in its entirety. At that point Rogán’s memory was jiggled, but he still claimed that the letter contained only generalities. It is true that Horváth didn’t mention any names, but he indicated that some of the high officials of NAV were getting paid off for their “leniency” and that some of them had become quite rich in the process.

The way the fraud was committed does look complicated, but in essence it entails a phantom supplier who gets reimbursed for VAT, which is the highest in the European Union. Thus a product for which the Hungarian company paid 100 forints to, let’s say, a Slovak company cost the Hungarian company only about 80 forints and thus its profit margin is about 20-25% higher than it would have been without the assistance of this phantom company. There is a drawing of the scheme in Index.

Fidesz naturally suspects political motives behind Horváth’s revelations. Mihály Varga, minister of economics, warned Horváth that he as a civil servant is not supposed to engage in political activities. Horváth insists that politics has nothing to do with it and that the law is on his side. After all, he says, the law is supposed to shield those who unveil corruption and fraud. But Horváth is in trouble because so far his case has not been taken up by the prosecutor’s office. They want additional information, which sounds like a diversionary tactic. Knowing the political orientation of the prosecutor’s office, I will be most surprised if Horváth’s case is ever taken up.

Meanwhile, of course, the case became thoroughly politicized. It couldn’t have been otherwise. András Schiffer’s LMP immediately moved into action. Next Friday the party will stage a demonstration for “the purity of the tax office and for the upstanding taxpayers.” At the same time, LMP and József Ángyán, formerly Fidesz but now an independent member of parliament, initiated the process to set up a parliamentary committee to investigate the NAV case.

The establishment of such a committee must be supported by 77 members of parliament. As it turned out, in addition to the seven-member LMP only a few independents, a handful of Együtt-PM, and Jobbik members signed the petition.  And that’s not enough. Without MSZP there can be no committee investigation of the case. DK members also refused to sign. The reason for both MSZP and DK holding back was the signatures of Jobbik members. They refuse to join any parliamentary action in which Jobbik is involved.

It is true that, even if the necessary number of signatures had been obtained, the investigative commission most likely wouldn’t have seen the light of day. Fidesz would have voted it down flat. But at least the charge couldn’t have been leveled against MSZP that they were reluctant to sign because they didn’t want their own part in the tax evasion scheme to be unearthed. Indeed, the reason for their refusal to sign doesn’t sound quite genuine, as some Együtt-PM members point out, because in the last three years MSZP members signed several documents on which one could find Jobbik names as well. Attila Mesterházy’s explanation for MSZP’s action (or lack of action) in this case is that the party decided to boycott Jobbik in parliament and elsewhere only recently.

I’m not sure whether refusing to collaborate with Jobbik in every instance is necessarily a smart political tactic. My feeling is that Mesterházy and others can explain their reasons until they are blue in the face, yet people who are inclined to equate the two parties when it comes to corruption will never believe them. And these are exactly the people whom Gordon Bajnai and Attila Mesterházy want to convince to vote for them. Of course, those who argue that nothing would have come of the investigative committee are right, but at least MSZP could have avoided another reason for labeling them a corrupt party, just as corrupt as the “mafia government” of Fidesz.