I refused to take part in shady deals – former mayor speaks out against local corruption

“We regularly heard that the “big guys” in the spa stated who should win the public contracts, because then a lot of money would come here for tourism development” – a former Fidesz mayor described the local operation of Hungary’s governing party in a video interview. Lajos Kósa was the mayor of the town Rákóczifalva until October 2019. In the spring of the following year, he filed a report with the prosecutor’s office, detailing how some local Fidesz leaders tried to influence certain tenders and public contracts to go to the “right” people.

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First as an independent, then as a Fidesz municipal councillor (2010-2014) and later as mayor (2014-2019), Kósa has seen behind the scenes and understood how the gears of the governing party Fidesz work. In the interview to Atlatszo, he said that he had seen “the controlled distribution of money” – including the channelling of EU grant money and public contracts to “friends”. He also stated that because he refused to participate in this, he was prevented from doing his job from “above” – by local Fidesz leaders.

In spring 2020, Lajos Kósa reported the abuses to the Bács-Kiskun County Prosecutor’s Office. In January this year, he was questioned as a suspect by the Criminal Investigation Directorate of the National Tax and Customs Administration of Hungary (NAV in Hungarian), due to the transfer of grant money, which was not used for the original purposes. At the same time, the interrogation report also records that Kósa did not divert these funds (a total of HUF 160 million or 450.000 €) into his own pocket, but used them for the operation of the local government, which was short of resources, and for the performance of compulsory tasks. This was admitted by Mr Kósa during his interrogation, but he did not admit to having committed a crime. The case is still under investigation.

Background deals in the Martfű Spa

In the interview, Lajos Kósa revealed how he was persuaded to take part in projects and contracts that he considered objectionable (unnecessary or overpriced), and how he tried – unsuccessfully – to confront the corrupt system, and how Fidesz’s regional leadership made his work as mayor impossible. The former mayor would have been expected to help keep the system running smoothly, but refused to get involved in questionable deals.

Moreover, he chose not to stand aside quietly but to expose the abuses he had experienced for the learning of others and to clear himself in public.

Nem voltam hajlandó ezekre a mutyikra – kitálal Kósa Lajos volt fideszes polgármester from on Vimeo.

Kósa told Atlatszo about several local projects, about which he said that during the preparation and implementation, the regional Fidesz leadership tried to influence him to give the contract to the contractor they recommended, to buy the preferred property from the municipality, or to vote for a tender they considered unnecessary. These included, among others, a public employment tender which he said was not viable in the first place because of market prices and labour shortages, for which the municipality was forced to buy a given (and poorly maintained) property without having enough money to renovate it.

He explained how the municipality had tried to implement a project on a suitable site owned by the council itself. The message from above was that the tenant there, who had not paid rent to the municipality for years, should be left alone and that another property, the garage and plot of land of a municipal councillor from Szolnok, should be purchased to implement the project. In addition, the value of this property, according to the property valuers commissioned by the municipality, was much lower than the amount the municipality had to spend on buying it.

In the video interview, the former mayor also presented the case of the expansion of the local nursery school, where a tender by invitation was launched, but the regional Fidesz leadership suggested who they should appoint to make the municipality successful in the tender. In fact, Kósa claims that in this project he was given a specific company name and telephone number by the local Fidesz MP.

According to Kósa, when the local government became almost inoperable due to a lack of resources, they wanted to take out a loan, but the local Fidesz leadership did not support this. As a solution, they suggested to the mayor that the money from the grants should be reallocated and shifted around.

He talks about how a – now deceased – deputy state secretary of the Ministry of the Interior tried to persuade him to take part in a project to develop a local museum, and to channel the grant money through a Romanian municipality so that it could be used for something it could not otherwise have been used for.

The former mayor of Rákóczifalva told Atlatszo that from the moment he said no to contracts he considered to be “shady”, his work and the operation of the municipality he led were constantly being made more difficult as a punishment.

Atlatszo approached all public officials and politicians named by Kósa in the interview, but they either denied any wrongdoings or did not answer our questions. Those who answered, told us that they have never taken part in any informal meetings at the Martfű spa.

We also asked some questions about the grants awarded to Rákóczifalva through the Ministry of the Interior and about their monitoring. The Ministry’s press department replied that between 2014 and 2021, Rákóczifalva received a total of HUF 458 878 301 in public employment subsidies.  The Ministry of Interior audited two of the public employment tenders in Rákóczifalva, and “during the period in question, the traditional, longer public employment programmes and the model programme were inspected on a monthly basis. The inspections revealed administrative shortcomings, which the municipality has remedied in all cases, following warnings from the government office.”

In the interview given to Atlatszo, Lajos Kósa also talked about how he and several other mayors in the area were approached through intermediaries by one of prime minister Viktor Orbán’s brothers, Áron Orbán, “to offer his help in a successful bid”. We have not been able to get a reaction from Áron Orbán to this claim.

However, we spoke to two other local mayors who, when contacted, said that they had also met Áron Orbán in a hotel in Martfű around 2016.

We asked Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, via the press department of the Prime Minister’s Office, what he knew about his brother’s alleged promises of help to rural mayors for various tenders. We have not yet received a reply from the Prime Minister.

Grant money has not stopped flowing to Rákóczifalva: since October 2019, the municipality has signed contracts for further projects – implemented with grant money – including the renovation of the market, the construction of a learning path, the renovation of the ski slope and the expansion of the local museum.

Written and translated by Gabriella Horn, video by Dániel Németh. The longer Hungarian version of this story with documents is available here.

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