A rumor circulating around Greece is causing quite a stir: Margarita Papandreou, the mother of former Prime Minister George Papandreou, has allegedly deposited money in Switzerland to evade taxes.
The rumor mill has been roaring in Greece ever since the weekly newspapers To Vima and Proto Thema ran reports claiming that 89-year-old Margarita Papandreou, mother of former Greek Prime Minister Giorgos Papandreou, deposited $500 million in Swiss accounts under an assumed name.
The reports by both papers are based on alleged statements from senior tax officials who were involved in a tax investigation headed by the country's Financial Crimes Squad (SDOE).
No evidence was cited.
The tax officials reportedly said that the person whom Margarita Papandreou used to deposit the money was on the so-called "Lagarde List," named after the former French finance minister and current head of the International Monetary Fund. The IMF is one of Greek's lenders.
Swiss bank account
The list contains names and bank account details of Greeks with accounts at the Swiss subsidiary of the London-based bank HSBC. The confidential account information was said to be included in the data that the French government had purchased from a bank employee.
The French government reportedly handed over the list in 2010 to then-Greek Finance Minister Giorgos Papakonstantinou, who allowed it to disappear under mysterious circumstances in the labyrinth of Greek bureaucracy. The list only resurfaced after the Athens journalist Kostas Vaxevanis discovered it in October and published excerpts in his political magazine Hot Doc.
Giorgos Papandreou denies all allegations and claims he and his family are the target of a smear campaign. It is an open secret that Papandreou made many enemies in the Greek media during his tenure.
To his defense, some of the alleged sources claim never to have made such statements. "I never heard of the Lagarde List nor did I ever mention concrete names or indicate that these were linked to this matter in any way," said tax official Nikos Lekkas in December. Lekkas was named in the papers as the person who discovered the scandal.
But the question remains: When will the Greeks finally learn the names of prominent tax evaders funneling billions of dollars abroad?
Poor tax moral
The Greek government is trying to calm the waters with claims that it is working intensively on a tax treaty with Switzerland.
But many doubt the success of the ongoing negotiations. "If tax morals at home are already weak, they won't be strengthened by a treaty with other countries," Michel Derobert, managing director of the Association of Swiss Private Banks, told Proto Thema. "Many will ask: if I haven't been paying taxes in my home country, why should I do so in Switzerland?"
The lack of official information leaves room for speculation. Not one or two but five different lists of people suspected of tax evasion are rumored to exist. The Lagarde List has been reportedly supplemented by a further list compiled by the Greek Bank Association that focuses on high net-worth customers.
An additional list contains Greek property owners in major European capitals, while yet another names 54,246 banking customers who, according to the Greek Finance Ministry, have transferred more than 22 billion euros abroad since the debt crisis. The most recent list to have surfaced contains 1,747 names of people suspected of "sudden financial gain."
What all these lists have in common, however, is that they provide suspicions but no concrete evidence. Is someone looking for a scapegoat?
Actually, it is the responsibility of the tax authorities to come up with proof, but they are making little progress.
In an interview with the Athens daily newspaper Kathimerini, Diomidis Spinellis, a computer science professor and former Secretary of the Treasury, puts the blame on Greece's excessive bureaucracy. "Some of the employees at the ministry are well qualified while others just sit around every day waiting to go home. You can only circumvent such a situation with a system that allows you to select your own people according to specific performance criteria."
Spinellis, who no longer wants to rely on state promises, has his own idea for greater tax justice. He has launched a website inviting every citizen to report incidents of fraud and corruption. They can do so with their own name or anonymously.
The website, which is maintained by volunteers, has prompted other similar sites in the country. A 22-year-old Greek woman, for instance, has started her own website with the evocative name "Edosa Fakelaki," which translates "I paid a bribe."
The site attracted hundreds of users within weeks. Many of the victims reported having to pay bribes in public hospitals, state-owned utility companies and even for their driving test.
Swiss banking giant UBS has agreed to pay Germany a hefty fine for its involvement in helping German clients hide money from tax authorities. It's the biggest fine ever paid to the country by a Swiss lender.
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