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Polish Producer Charged With Attempted Bribery

Scandal surrounding a filmmaker is seen as a test case of how the nation treats graft.

January 15, 2003|Ela Kasprzycka and David Holley | Times Staff Writers

WARSAW — The latest scandal to erupt on the Polish political scene sounds like something out of "The Godfather," in which a Hollywood producer gets an offer he can't refuse.

But in the Polish version, it's the movie producer who allegedly makes the offer -- to a legend of the anti-communist Solidarity movement who now runs the top-selling newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza.

The newspaper alleged in a late-December article that Lew Rywin, a prominent filmmaker in Poland, had met months earlier with its chief editor, Adam Michnik, and solicited a $17.5-million bribe in exchange for parliamentary action favorable to the newspaper firm.

Rywin said he represented people connected with the ruling Democratic Left Alliance, including Prime Minister Leszek Miller, the newspaper wrote. The money was to be transferred into Rywin's company account, the report said, but used by a group within the party.

Michnik said he played along enough to keep Rywin talking in that conversation but never accepted the offer.

Once reported, the scandal was quickly dubbed "Rywingate," and on Tuesday, prosecutors in Warsaw charged the filmmaker with attempted bribery. "He is charged from Article 230 of the penal code," prosecution spokesman Zbigniew Jaskolski said. The clause provides for up to three years in prison.

Rywin's passport was confiscated and he has been barred from leaving Poland, authorities said.

Corruption is seen as a major problem in Poland, and many view this controversy as a test case of how seriously it is treated.

The flamboyant Rywin, 57, who is also an actor, heads his own company, Heritage Films. It co-produced Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List," which won the 1993 Academy Award for best film, and "The Pianist," which also cast Rywin in a minor role and won the top prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival.

Gazeta Wyborcza had vehemently opposed provisions in a proposed media law that would have prevented Agora, the newspaper's owner, from buying a top television station. Work on the law is on hold, and talk of the company's buying the TV station has died down.

Michnik, the editor, met Rywin in July and captured the conversation on a digital recorder, Gazeta reported.

Michnik called Miller and asked if the prime minister had dispatched Rywin, and Miller vehemently denied having done so.

After news of the incident broke and Miller, a former communist, was criticized for not doing anything about it, the prime minister told Polish radio, "All this is improbable, incredible, not serious and not true."

In another radio interview, Miller added: "Unquestionably, Mr. Rywin has confused his film roles as mafia bosses and gangsters with real life. I had never authorized Mr. Rywin to be my emissary in connection with the media law or any other situation. Mr. Rywin has never been my formal or informal advisor."

Controversy has also swirled around the fact that the newspaper sat on the story for five months before going public.

"In the beginning, we wanted to publish the conversation between Michnik and Rywin immediately," Helena Luczywo, deputy editor, explained in the Dec. 27 report. "It was an impulse from our days in the anti-communist opposition -- something horrible is happening, let's write about it.

"But newspapers don't always write everything immediately. We wanted to verify Rywin's version, learn whether it was his own idea or if he was just a mailman. Who was the real author of the proposal? Who is powerful enough to deliver passage of a law?"

Pawel Smolenski, author of the December article, gave another explanation in a commentary in the paper. Last fall, Poland was in the final stages of negotiating terms for joining the European Union, and Gazeta Wyborcza thought it would be harmful and irresponsible to divert attention from issues most vital to the country, he said.

Following an outcry across the political spectrum, Parliament on Friday set up a committee to look into the incident.

During parliamentary debate, the ruling coalition's Eugeniusz Klopotek, lamenting endemic corruption, said: "This time no one can say it was done under the table. We have facts, we have events, names and even tapes. If this simply comes to nothing, then we will never be able to deal with this disease."

In an editorial in the Rzeczpospolita daily newspaper, Editor in Chief Maciej Lukaszewicz wrote that the Rywin case tests whether democratic institutions built in Poland since 1989 have become "the basis for our political life, or just a facade for a system of pathological ties between the worlds of business, media and politics."

Throughout the controversy, Rywin has been silent, except for a letter to Miller that said, "The context and sense of my contacts, and my intentions, definitely differed from what has been presented by the press."

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Kasprzycka reported from Warsaw and Holley from Moscow.

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