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Phone Records Focus of Polish Bribery Inquiry

Panel says a filmmaker accused of soliciting funds was in constant contact with lawmakers during a crucial period.

May 08, 2003|Ela Kasprzycka and David Holley | Times Staff Writers

WARSAW — In recent weeks, the hottest property on the tightly knit Polish political scene seems to be telephone records: those of Lew Rywin, co-producer of the Academy Award-winning movie "The Pianist," who stands now at the center of a scandal dubbed "Rywingate."

The Polish filmmaker is accused of trying to solicit a $17.5-million bribe from the country's leading newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, in exchange for parliamentary action favorable to the paper's parent company Agora.

Telephone records released by a parliamentary investigative commission show that many top politicians from the ruling Democratic Left Alliance, or SLD, called Rywin frequently during a sensitive time of political consultation on a proposed media law. The controversial bill, now on hold, was drafted with provisions that would have hurt Agora's plans to expand.

The scandal has opened a window into what critics call the ties of corruption that link Poland's political and business elites. It has already dealt a severe blow to the government of Prime Minister Leszek Miller, a former communist who is now trying to lead his nation into the European Union.

Support for the government has fallen to 10%, the lowest of any post-1989 Cabinets in Poland, according to polls.

Poles have been glued to their televisions watching the panel's hearings. In testimony before the commission last month, Miller repeated his denial of any wrongdoing.

"Perhaps you have some experience indicating that lawmakers are corrupt and can be bribed," Miller retorted under questioning from Zbigniew Ziobro, a member of the opposition Law and Justice Party. "But I think you cannot buy a law."

Miller stressed that when he first heard of the allegations in July, he considered them "absurd." He complained that "the whole case is being treated by some political groups as a chance to attack the Democratic Left Alliance."

The 10-member panel plans to question Miller again in June. Prosecutors have already questioned President Aleksander Kwasniewski, who learned of the affair before it became public.

"Rywingate is not a scandal, it is a festering wound which shows us just the tip of an iceberg," said Lena Kolarska-Bobinska, head of the Institute for Public Affairs, a Warsaw think tank. "It concentrates in itself the full picture of informal ties between the world of business and politics. For 13 years there was talk about it, but it has never been brought into the open and analyzed so closely, bit by bit, piece by piece."

Jan Rokita, an opposition member of the commission, said that "the level of involvement and the knowledge of the affair by people from the top echelons of power, including the president himself, is extraordinary."

The revelations have triggered fierce clashes in Parliament.

Democratic Left members of the investigative commission argued that the telephone records are just columns of numbers and might have nothing to do with the corruption allegations.

"One should learn how to interpret them," said Bogdan Lewandowski, a ruling party representative on the panel.

Rokita angrily countered: "These billings, Member of Parliament Lewandowski, are not, as you said, just columns with numbers, they are rows with the names of SLD politicians who had contacts with Lew Rywin."

The scandal erupted late last year when Gazeta Wyborcza published allegations that Rywin had asked for the bribe during a meeting months earlier with the newspaper's chief editor, former dissident Adam Michnik. Rywin claimed to be representing people connected with the ruling party, the newspaper wrote.

Michnik, who secretly recorded the conversation, said he played along enough to keep Rywin talking but never agreed to the offer. In January, prosecutors charged Rywin with attempted bribery. Rywin's company, Heritage Films, co-produced "The Pianist," which won Academy Awards in March for best leading actor, best directing and best screenplay adaptation.

Poles are used to the tradition of doing business through informal, social ties, in which members of the landed gentry would invite politicians to their manor houses instead of visiting their offices.

But Rokita said that he was shocked at how high this way of making deals reached: "This is not just the mechanism we know from the public health center where it is good to know the doctor privately to get the best care, or even a local community where it's nice to know the mayor and drink a glass of beer with him. It applies to the prime minister, president, members of government."

As the scandal unfolds there is a growing fear in Poland that it might have a negative effect on the outcome of a June referendum on EU membership.

"People know there is a scandal, there is corruption at the top and EU integration is perceived as a matter for the elites, for 'them,' " said Kolarska-Bobinska. "They feel apathy, even a greater distance towards the ruling class, distaste.

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