Hungarian authorities secretive about OLAF’s report on fraud committed by Orban’s son-in-law
Hungarian authorities are working hard to make sure that the details of the so-called Elios-case do not become public. This means that Hungarian citizens still cannot learn what exactly happened when a company owned by PM Orban’s young son-in-law won a series of lucrative, EU-funded tenders.
News broke in January 2018 that the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) had finished a two-year investigation into EU-funded street light modernization programs in Hungary. OLAF found that there were serious irregularities and possible conflicts of interest concerning 35 such contracts. The contracts in question were all won by Elios Zrt., a company formerly co-owned and led by prime minister Viktor Orban’s son-in-law, István Tiborcz. They were signed between 2011 and 2015 and are worth a total of €40 million.
A Hungarian news site, 24.hu, reportedly has the document and cited certain parts of it, but did not make it public. More details were revealed when Atlatszo and Hungarian citizens as well filed a freedom of information requests with towns who took part in the project. Some of these towns, in response, revealed the letters they were sent by OLAF.
Hungarian green MEP Benedek Jávor recently filed a freedom of information request with the Hungarian Office of the Prosecutor General and also with the Ministry of Innovation and Technology, asking for the OLAF report on the Elios case. Both denied his request.
This is what corruption looks like: drone videos of 23 towns with Elios lamps
One of the biggest political scandals of the past few months was the so-called Elios scandal in Hungary. OLAF, the European anti-corruption agency sent the result of two years of its work to Hungarian authorities in the winter, recommending legal action over “serious irregularities” and “conflict of interest” connected to Elios Zrt.
The ministry argues that there is no overriding public interest in publishing the document. Jávor claims that he sees no difference regarding the level of public interest at the OLAF report on the Budapest Metro Line 4 and at the report on the Elios case. The OLAF report on the metro was made public by the Orban government. The case involved politicians from the previous, left-wing governments.
Benedek Jávor has been keeping track of developments in the Elios case since its very beginning, and he regularly reports on it on his blog. In a note published on February 10, 2019, he recalled how the Hungarian Prosecution Service and the police were involved in the Elios case.
OLAF began investigating the suspicious public lighting projects based on Jávor’s report in 2015. It was around the same time that the Hungarian police closed the investigation that had been ordered in November 2015, citing ‘lack of crime.’
After two years of investigation, OLAF sent its findings and the entire report to the Hungarian government in January 2018. OLAF also reached out to the Office of the Prosecutor General in a judicial request.
This meant that Hungarian authorities were required to reopen the case, but the new investigation was closed by the end of 2018. At the same time, Átlátszó reported that the Elios case might cost Hungary billions of forints if the EU insisted on Hungary repaying the related EU funds, more than EUR 40 million.
Jávor wanted the government to publish the OLAF’s Elios-report just like they published the OLAF report on Metro Line 4, thus he sent a letter to János Lázár, then Minister of Prime Minister’s Office in January 2018. Neither Lázár, nor his successor, Gergely Gulyás, replied to him.
OLAF’s letters to Hungarian towns reveal details of fraudulent street light modernization projects
News broke in January that the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) finished a two-year investigation into EU-funded street light modernization programs in Hungary.
Jávor did not give up because he had first-hand information on the report. As a member of the EP Budgetary Control Committee, Jávor had access to the OLAF report the summer before, and he wrote that ‘based on the report, there is no question that serious systemic fraud occurred in almost all Elios projects.’
Jávor was convinced that ‘the public interest in the disclosure of this report is at least as high as it was in the case of the Metro Line 4.’ He then requested an opinion from Attila Péterfalvi, the President of the National Authority for Data Protection and Freedom of Information, asking under what conditions the government was allowed to publish the OLAF report. The police investigation was still ongoing at the time, this publishing the report was not allowed.
However, the criminal investigation was closed on November 6, 2018, thus Jávor tried to have the report published once again. He filed a freedom of information request with the office of Péter Polt, Prosecutor General and with László Palkovics, Minister for Innovation and Technology.
The Prosecutor General’s Office refused and said only those who have a legal interest in the conduct of the proceedings or the outcome of the OLAF report are allowed to see it.
Jávor wrote that ‘in the Prosecution’s opinion, as a Hungarian MEP I do not have the right to see the OLAF report examining embezzled European funds. In Brussels, on the other hand, I did have the opportunity to look into it, so the prosecutor’s office denies what I have the right to do in the European Union. Hungarian opposition MEPs have fewer rights in their own country than in the EU.’
The Ministry of Innovation and Technology did not fulfill Jávor’s request claiming they were data controllers in this case. Jávor noted that the ministry did not explain why the government was the data controller in the case of the Metro Line 4 report but not in the Elios case.
The Ministry’s reply also states that the European institutions should not disclose the Elios report, ‘unless there is an overriding public interest in the disclosure.’
Again, the ministry did not explain why there was an overriding public interest in publishing the OLAF report on Metro Line 4 and why there is not in publishing the report on Elios.
According to Jávor, ‘it is clear that the government and the prosecution are desperately fighting against any substantive investigation regarding the fraud that affects the prime minister’s immediate family; they fight against imposing appropriate sanctions, or even making the facts public.’
Written by Brigitta Csikász
English version by Zsuzsanna Liptákné Horváth. You can read the original, Hungarian language version here.
Cover image: István Tiborcz, Orban’s son-in-law