By Andy Dabilis
Akis Tsochatzopoulos, a former Greek defence minister, looked a bit surprised as he was being escorted by police out of his 1.4m-euro classical mansion on an exclusive pedestrian walkway directly under the Acropolis.
“I wasn’t expecting this,” he said as he was taken into custody on charges of money-laundering associated with defence contracts and bribes.
Neither were Greeks crushed by pay cuts, tax hikes and slashed pensions, furious over austerity measures aimed at resurrecting the country’s dead economy, and used to politicians and Greece’s rich elite being above the law, as they watched the first major political figure to be prosecuted on corruption charges. The charges rocked Greece, with allegations of a high-living, free-wheeling civil servant. Prosecutors said Tsochatzopoulos would spend 38,000 euros a day and hid the source of his wealth through elaborate schemes involving offshore firms.
For all that, it was his failure to report the house — which was in his wife’s name — on his declaration of wealth that finally led to his arrest, although evidence had been emerging for two years linking him to a number of scandals. Prosecutors outlined charges in a 103-page report that alleged he used his position to steal as much as 47m euros in under-the-table bribes for defence procurements.
While beleaguered Greeks were gleeful, doubts remain whether Tsochatzopoulos, 72, will stay in jail. He is in a cell reserved for financial crime suspects, a cut above other accommodations. He was allowed to bring his own sheets.
Questions remain whether his arrest is a sign that Greece is serious about cracking down on notorious levels of corruption, or a campaign gimmick. The country’s floundering major political parties, the PASOK Socialists he helped found in 1974, and their bitter rival New Democracy Conservatives share power in a shaky hybrid government ahead of May 6th elections.
Some wonder whether they have used him as a sacrificial lamb: Tsochatzopoulos spent Easter in a holding cell after all. Was it a move designed to distract attention from the austerity measures they imposed? The parties are dropping in opinion polls, and while they are expected to again finish 1-2, with New Democracy leading, their combined 40% level of support has fallen from more than 80% during the last election in 2009. That was won by PASOK’s former leader, George Papandreou, who resigned five months ago in the face of incessant protests, riots and strikes against austerity measures.
“They just remembered to arrest an old-fashioned politician before the election to show they are determined to get those responsible for the crisis to justice,” said George Tzogopoulos, a Research Fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy in Athens. He told SETimes: “They are trying to give the perception that Greek justice is changing, but no one believes that.”
Tsochatzopoulos has long been a target of public fury and came under a barrage of criticism from Greek media for his opulent 2004 wedding reception in Paris, held at the Four Seasons Hotel so guests could enjoy a view of the Eiffel Tower. His arrest was a long fall from that, although he had denied all charges against him during television interviews following a recommendation by a parliamentary committee last year. Members urged that he be investigated for alleged criminal actions in connection with the contract to purchase German submarines that turned out to be faulty.
He served as defence minister from 1996-2001 and told a magistrate at a hearing on Monday (April 16th) that he had done nothing wrong, while his lawyers said that the contracts, including for missiles in another deal, had been approved by the State Council for Foreign Affairs and Defense (KYSEA) and former prime ministers Costas Simitis and George Papandreou.
The newspaper Kathimerini reported that during his eight hours of testimony and questioning in a closed-door hearing, he repeatedly claimed ignorance about the offshore firms and said, “I never accepted gifts or any type of exchanges for any reason during my political career and my terms as minister.”
Prosecutors Evgenia Kyvelou and Eleni Siskou said the transactions were concealed with the help of close associates who ran three offshore companies to hide the money, some of which was used to buy the ex-minister’s properties and assets. The report listed all the transactions, including the names of the financial institutions involved and charged that bribes in the submarine deal amounted to nearly 8m euros. Those for procurement of missiles totaled another 13.56m.
Marios Evriveavis, a professor of International Relations at Panteion University in Athens, said that Tsochatzopoulos isn’t the only politician who has been taking money. “A lot of defence ministers before him and a lot of other ministers have done the same thing,” he told SETimes. He said the arrest was to defuse public rage. “By throwing him to the dogs, they (New Democracy and PASOK) present themselves as moral and ethical and that’s not the case. He’s getting an unfair deal in that he shouldn’t be alone in prison.”
Four other suspects implicated in the money laundering network, Tsochatzopoulos’ cousin Nikolaos Zigras, also a former minister; George Sachpatzides, a businessman with links to the offshore companies; Efrosini Lambropoulou, an accountant for the firms; and Asterios Economidis, head of one of the offshore companies, were arrested. Prosecutors said at least 14 people were involved.
Tsochatzopoulos’s daughter, Areti, denied media reports that gold bars were found at her home but said that police seized ten pieces of gold leaf, which weigh 99 grams each, as well as nine 1935 gold sovereigns that she said she inherited from her grandfather. Such is the fury now in a country where many politicians are fearful of appearing in public — even during the short campaign — for fear of being assaulted, that as Tsochatzopoulos’ wife left court, she was pummeled with insults, called a “whore” and “thief.”
Antonis Klapsis, head of research for the Kostas Karamanlis Institute for Democracy, the official think tank for New Democracy, told SETimes that “Public opinion is pressing for justice for people who are corrupt. It might be part of a genuine campaign against corruption; it’s more than a show.” He acknowledged, however, that, “It is related to the upcoming elections and they (the government) will present it as a triumph. It’s not, but it’s something that’s never happened before.”