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Greece

Athens tax scandal becomes political thriller

How could suspected Greek tax evaders data simply disappear? This question may soon come before a parliamentary probe. At the center of the scandal is the country's former finance minister.

Greece's Finance Minister George Papaconstantinou speaks to reporters at a ministry hall during a press conference in Athens on May 7, 2011. (c) Kostas Tsironis/AP/dapd

Will former Finance Minister Papaconstantinou have to testify?

In the scandal involving the cover-up of alleged tax evader's bank accounts, Greece's former finance minister George Papaconstantinou may be forced to front an inquiry board. The reason: the former head of Greece's public finances is accused of removing relatives names from a list of Swiss bank account holders.

Named after Christine Lagarde, France's former finance minister and current head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the 'Lagarde-list' names nearly 2,000 Greeks holding bank accounts in Switzerland. An employee at HSBC in Geneva leaked the file and in 2010 Lagarde handed the dossier to her counterpart, Papaconstantinou, assuming the information would be of interest to Greek tax authorities.

Cover-up revealed

Greek journalist Kostas Vaxevanis (Photo: EPA/ORESTIS PANAGIOTOU)

Kostas Vaxevanis brought the scandal to light

The list mysteriously disappeared, but re-emerged in October last year when journalist Kostas Vaxevanis brought a second version to light, triggering a political tsunami in Athens. During his investigation into the content of the document, Finance Minister Jannis Stournaras requested the French government re-send a copy of the original file. It was only then, when the two were compared, that it became evident the names of three of the former minister's relatives had been deleted.

Papaconstantinou's denies the allegation made against him. In an interview with Greek state television on Monday (07.01.2013) he called himself a victim of a vicious plot. This would, he says, give him the sole responsibility when it comes to not interrupting the political balance. "Of course government stability is more necessary now than ever before, I know that. But I do not want to go to jail just so this government can stay in office," Papaconstantinou says.

Papaconstantinou struggles

Leader of PASOK Socialist party Evangelos Venizelos (Photo: EPA/ALKIS KONSTANTINIDIs)

Venizelos had Papaconstantinou expelled from the party

The criticism is directed at his former colleagues in the Socialist party. Papaconstantinou has repeatedly hinted that his successor, current party chief Evangelos Venizelos, could be behind the data manipulation in order to get himself out of the firing line. When the allegations against Papaconstantinou were first made, Venizelos had him expelled from the party. He also demanded the former minister front a parliamentary inquiry.

But there is no evidence, or liability for Papaconstantinou, nor anything indicating Venizelos interfered with the document. Greek media report that Papaconstantinou gave the document to the head of the Economic and Financial Crime Unit, Ioannis Diotis, who then, they claim, handed it over to the new finance minister, Venizelos, in 2011. All three deny having made a copy of the list or to altering it. In any event, the minister acted carelessly, Athens journalist Nikos Konstantaras told Skai television station. Unfortunately this happens all too often in Greek politics, "we always end up in chaos, because there are few fixed regulations. The reason being: institutions do not function properly."

Benefiting the left?

Alexis Tsipras, leader of the radical left main opposition party SYRIZA (Photo: EPA/ALEXANDROS VLACHOS)

Tsipras says the left could benefit from the crisis

The scandal has given the left a unique opportunity. If the ruling party and already embattled Socialists are weakened by the cover-up scandal it could bring down the three-party coalition lead by Conservative Antonis Samaras. Socialist party leader Venizelos knows the danger recently upping the ante with his attacks on the opposition leader, Alexis Tsipras.

Tsipras responded mockingly: "To accuse us of forging a plot to target the Socialists, that is a joke. The Socialists don't need it, they will manage to perish all alone," quipped the Greek opposition leader. The Socialists, he added, have been demoted in recent years under the leadership of conservative Prime Minister Samaras.

Political showdown

Christine Lagarde, the Managing Director of the International Monetary (Photo: AP Photo Oli Scarff, Pool)

Lagarde handed Papaconstantinou the original document

Next week, parliament will decide whether former Finance Minister Papaconstantinou will have to testify before a parliamentary inquiry into the allegations of data fraud and misconduct. The right-wing Independent Greeks party, backed by the far-right Golden Dawn goes one step further calling for a probe into Lucas Papademos and his socialist predecessor George Papandreou's involvement in the scandal.

The tax scandal has become a political issue, but, says analyst and former government spokesperson Dimitris Tsiodras in an interview on Greek television, it doesn't address the core of the problem: "All parties are worried about is the political mileage they can get out of this story. Yet the debate about tax fairness is unfortunately pushed aside."

Still more data?

The cover-up of the Lagarde-list gets more mysterious. Since Thursday (10.11.2013) speculation has mounted in Greek media that another USB stick exists with more tax data that is said to have come from the original list, including a list of Greeks with property in London and a file of over 50,000 bank account holders who, since the start of the debt crisis, have allegedly moved 22 billion euros ($29.3 billion) abroad.

Athens daily newspaper Eleftherotypia eventually remarks sarcastically, "Unfortunately our country produces more lists than it needs."

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