Cross-border media owned by Fidesz politician involved in watermelon cartel

In the second part of our series about the HURO programme, we set our eyes on the communication tenders. We investigate how a company with no media experience, but close ties to local politicians, won and implemented a comprehensive and costly cross-border communication strategy. Attempts to talk contact the company directly failed and their registered offices had closed down.

The Hungarian media regularly report that communication projects represent “easy money” for politically connected companies and people. These projects don’t require considerable investment in terms of work, tools or up front costs. It is difficult to assess objectively the outcomes from a communications project, therefore if you keep the costs down, it is not difficult to make handsome profits.

We became interested in a project named “Common press service for better information for the cross-border population” (HURO 1001/276/1.2.3) organized in partnership between a foundation from Pusztaottlaka, Békés county (HU) and the mayor’s office of Arad (RO).

The one-year project is remarkable mainly because its budget of 200,000 euros would be a considerable amount of money for a sizeable media outlet, let alone for a small, provincial media organisation.

A number of news reports have described Pusztottlaka as the place where Fidesz MP György Simonka is ‘the big white boss’. The politician, who became known in 2012 after a watermelon cartel scandal, was the mayor of Pusztaottlaka for a long time, and is the most important employer in the area. The companies controlled by Simonka and his former partners are present everywhere in the southern part of Békés county (HU), the financial weekly HVG wrote.

According to the description in the public procurement announced by the lead partner, the Public Foundation for the Agricultural Producers of Southern Békés County (Dél-Békés Mezőgazdasági Termelőiért Közhasznú Alapítvány), the project consists of uploading content to a website, the creation of a 60 minute radio programme, and publications, as well as organising three 2 day media training sessions. The total value of the project is 79,000 euros (incl. VAT).

The budget of the project sets out the costs estimated by the partner for various items. For example, 10 minutes of radio programme would cost 1,000 euro, the price tag of 2,000 copies of a 16-page cultural-historical publication would be 3,000 euros. The project estimates 2,000 euros for a 2-day media training, 20,000 euro for a bilingual website, and 6,000 euros for both the opening and closing ceremony. They would spend another 5,000 euros on promotional materials.

Furthermore, we didn’t have to search far to see that in this project everything is connected to György Simonka and the Pusztaottlaka mayor’s office. In the period during which the project was awarded, the representative of the lead partner was Renáta Tóth, a relative of György Simonka.

As in many other cases, the value of the contract was just below the threshold, the lead partner choose the contractor through a negotiated procedure without a competitive call for tenders. The winner was Likefest Szervező és Szolgáltató Kft. from Pusztaottlaka, a company that has no experience in organising media trainings: before this job, they won another public contract for the renovation of the Likefest petting zoo. Both the petting zoo and Likefest Szervező és Szolgáltató Kft. are known to be close to György Simonka.

But there is more: the other two companies competing for the project didn’t have any experience with media either. ITC Kft. from Mórahalom (HU) is specialized in building computer networks. The third competitor, Simba Hungary Kft. has its headquarters near Likefest Szervező és Szolgáltató Kft., its main activity being plant production and wholesale commerce with fruits and vegetables. Currently the company is under liquidation. In the past, the owner and manager of the company was György Simonka, and it is still under the control of the Simonka family.

One can drive for minutes between the huge farmlands of Békés county without seeing anyone. The township of Pusztottlaka is also deserted: the first people we met stood in front of the mayor’s office. We set off to visit the two companies from Pusztaottlaka, and finding them turned out to be easier than we thought.

The two nearby addresses given in the public procurement are in fact on the site of an old co-operative farm near the township. The Likefest park is located on a former collective farm with old warehouses and is now called a “business park”.

As we entered, the scene was quite bizarre: the gates were wide open, there were no people in sight, but dozens of peafowls sunbathing on the rooftops of the warehouses. On the gate of a deserted warehouse we found the inscription “Simba Hungary Kft.”. The offices of the winner of the procurement, Likefest Szervező és Szolgáltató Kft. were a few dozen meters away, in a new building, which was closed.

We called the phone number of  Baukó Lászlóné, the name provided in the tender as the contact person of the lead partner, Dél-Békés Mezőgazdasági Termelőiért Közhasznú Alapítvány. Unexpectedly a clerk from the mayor’s office answered, and gave us the private phone number of Baukó Lászlóné.

She told us that she indeed is volunteering from time to time at the foundation. However, she had no knowledge of being a contact person of an EU project worth approximately 80,000 euros. Nevertheless, she promised to forward our questions to the people in charge – we are still waiting for their reply.

Then we tried to get hold of the winner of the project, Likefest Szervező és Szolgáltató Kft., without success. We contacted the editor of a website that was created as part of the project. It turned out that the editor is the press officer at the mayor’s office. Just like the contact person, she promised to answer our questions, but she did not follow up with us.

One of the main items of the CrossPress project is a website called Likefestoon. The site is based on the free WordPress engine, and it has a simple bilingual design. Most of the published articles are press releases.

The Romanian partner of the project, the mayor’s office of Arad was more cooperative: they answered all our questions, sent us the programs from the media trainings, the publications, as well as the contracts signed as part of the project.

The mayor’s office of Arad (RO) won 112,000 euro to implement a media training program pretty similar to the one implemented in Pusztaottlaka. They contracted a printing company, Compania de Producție Tipografică SA, to print their publications; the value of the contract is 38,000 euro.

One of the publications printed as part of the project, a bilingual newspaper called “Conexiuni-Kapcsolások” (Conexiuni) is, by all standards, a PR-publication of the mayor’s office: and the articles are about the projects of the local authorities.

A private contractor received 13,000 euro for radio programmes and a documentary. The contract stipulates that the HD quality documentary is for promotional purposes and must be 10 minutes in length. The product, costed at 3,900 euros, has to be supplied in the form of one thousand DVDs. The contractor had to film another three 20-minute television programmes for 7,000 euro, then three more 5 minute slots of radio programmes for another 2,300 euro.

A freelancer with experience in this type of work commented: “Since it is unclear from the contract what the topic and the technical requirements of the documentary and the television programmes are, it is impossible to make a realistic estimate of  the production costs”. Filmed locally, with low-end cameras, the production costs can be kept reasonably low. The freelancer went on to say that a high quality product would require significant funding, and if the contractor is working conscientiously, then this budget is realistic.

The three, 100-person media seminars were contracted by SC Social Start Events SRL for a total of 27,000 euro. The royalties and location rental fees amounted to 20,000 euro, the seminars being held at a lavish ceremonial room in Arad. A further 7,000 euros was paid for the catering, lunch and lodging of the participants.

From the contract it is unclear how much the location rental fee was. We called the company operating the ceremonial room, and obtained a quote of approx. 2 euros/person/day. Based on this estimate, we calculated that location, catering and lunch costs for the seminars were around 10,000 euro, about one third of the money paid to SC Social Start Events SRL.

The owner of SC Social Start Events SRL is the Educatio Association, founded by a local councillor.

The topics covered at the media training were interesting to us. The title of the most relevant workshop was ‘Online reporting, the future of cross border journalism’. Our favorite titles were ‘New inspiration sources for journalists: the traditions and customs of the Crisul Alb valley’ and ‘Cross border communication. The special language even barbarians understand’.

As part of the project, the mayor’s office also purchased a computer and a printer for 2,200 euros. They spent another 5,800 euros on project management.

Authors: Ildikó D. Kovács – Babett Oroszi – Zoltán Sipos

This article was developed with support by Journalismfund.eu.