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Greek lawmakers to vote on probe of former officials in tax scandal

January 17, 2013|By Anthee Carassava
  • Former Greek Finance Minister George Papaconstantinou addresses a news conference
Former Greek Finance Minister George Papaconstantinou addresses a news… (Louisa Gouliamaki / AFP/Getty…)

ATHENS -- Greek lawmakers are to decide Thursday whether two former prime ministers and two ex-finance ministers should be investigated and potentially prosecuted on allegations of covering up suspected tax cheats in the nation's biggest tax-evasion scandal in decades.

The explosive controversy puts former Finance Minister George Papaconstantinou at the center of a murky tale of intrigue and alleged cover-ups that has gripped Greeks for months. Near-daily disclosures have undermined the government's bid to revive public confidence and to crack down on widespread tax evasion.

Thursday's parliamentary vote, expected late in the evening, stems from allegations of fraud and breach of duty leveled against Papaconstantinou in December after a judicial probe found that he may have deleted the names of three relatives from a list of wealthy Greeks with more than $2 billion in savings stashed away in Swiss bank accounts. The former finance minister is reviled by many of his compatriots for signing up Greece to its first international bailout and years of austerity.

Papaconstantinou acknowledges receiving a digital version of the list from Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund, when she was French finance minister and he was serving in the socialist government of Prime Minister George Papandreou, in 2010. Papaconstantinou says he lost the list after passing on a copy to the country's financial police in July 2011, but he denies any wrongdoing.

His successor as finance minister, Evangelos Venizelos, turned up a copy a year later when another version was leaked to the media. By then, Venizelos was no longer finance minister, and the current finance minister ordered a fresh investigation.

"This is the ultimate, most telling tale of Greece's long-standing problem," said Pavlos Tsimas, a leading commentator. "It has nothing to do with numbers, but rather the quality, the ethics and the failure of the political system. ... When politicians effectively take over civil administration, the risks are enormous."

Nearly three years since the French tipoff, none of the more than 2,000 Greeks on the so-called Lagarde list have been investigated, let alone charged.

Papaconstantinou faces the prospect of criminal prosecution together with Venizelos, Papandreou and his successor, Lucas Papademos. All are accused of covering up the tax-evasion scandal.

Though lawmakers looked certain to vote for a further probe in connection with the allegations against Papaconstantinou, it remained unclear whether they would do so for Venizelos, a pugnacious constitutional lawyer who took over the helm of Greece's socialist party in 2012. The party is part of the current conservative-led coalition government.

With Greeks reeling from a third year of increased austerity, the scandal has stoked public scorn, heightened distrust against the political elite and fueled resentment against the rich.

What's more, Tsimas said, "it has robbed Greeks of the last thing they have: hope."

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