Freedom of Information

Ministry of Finance conceals the details of the HUF 1.3 billion grant given to Lőrinc Mészáros’ company

In December 2020, Viresol Kft., the starch factory of the Hungarian billionaire Lőrinc Mészáros, received HUF 1.3 billion in non-refundable investment grant from the Ministry of Finance. In April this year, we tried to obtain the contract from the ministry in a public interst data request, but they extended the deadline for response to 45+45 days, and after that, did not send us anything. Because of this, we turned to court and won the case at the Municipal Court of Budapest. According to the court’s decision, the Ministry of Finance has to issue the document requested by Átlátszó within 15 days.

In December 2020 the Ministry of Finance granted HUF 1.3 billion in non-refundable investment aid to Viresol Kft., the starch factory of Lőrinc Mészáros. This information was found on the European Commission’s website and, interestingly, there is no mention of it on the Ministry’s or on Viresol’s own website. Previously, the same factory received a HUF 2.5 billion concessional loan from the state-owned Eximbank, in order to alleviate the economic difficulties caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

On 20 April, we submitted a public data request to the Ministry of Finance for the contract of the HUF 1.3 billion granted for Viresol Ltd. The ministry of Mihály Varga extended the deadline by 45 days in May, and by another 45 days in early June.

Public authorities can extend the deadline for requests of public interest data because of a decree issued last November. According to this regulation, the deadline, which was raised from 15 days to 45 days because of the coronavirus pandemic, can be extended by another month and a half if the disclosure of the data would “endanger the performance of the public tasks of the body performing public function in connection with the emergency”. This extension is often used by data holders.

We waited patiently, and at the end of July we wrote to the ministry that the 90-day deadline had already passed, and that they should send us the document. However, nothing has happened, so in mid-August we filed a claim in court against the Ministry of Finance for the Viresol grant contract.

We won the case at first instance

Surprisingly, almost two weeks after we filed our lawsuit, the Ministry of Finance announced that it was requesting 22,000 forints for the disclosure of the contract of Viresol Ltd., which “includes the costs of labour”. As we had already filed the claim at the time, we did not pay, of course, but waited for the court proceedings to end.

We were right to wait:

in its judgment of 7 December 2021, the Metropolitan Court of Budapest ordered the Ministry of Finance to send within 15 days the grant contract for the HUF 1.3 billion given to Viresol, together with all its annexes.

It was not a big legal battle, as the Ministry of Finance did not dispute that the document requested by Átlátszó was public information. In its counter-application, they claimed that they had set a fee of HUF 22 000, which made the release of the data conditional upon payment. The ministry also stated that “the law does not impose any penalty for late notification of the application for compensation for costs.”

However, the court remided that according to current regulation, data subject must be informed about the fact that data controller charge a fee for the answering request within 15 days.

In other words, the Ministry of Finance was wrong to request reimbursement on 2 September, this request should have been made much earlier, in May.

In view of this, the court ordered Mihály Varga’s ministry to send the contract to Átlátszó within 15 days and to pay HUF 150,000 in legal costs. Of course, it is possible that the Ministry of Finance will appeal against the judgment, it will soon be known.

The firm belongs to Lőrinc Mészáros and László Szíjjj

The company that operates the Visonta starch factory was founded in 2015 as Visonta Projekt Kft. by Mészáros and Mészáros Kft. owned by Lőrinc Mészáros, and Duna Aszfalt Kft. owned by László Szíjj.

At the end of the year Mészáros and Mészáros Kft. was replaced by Opus Global Nyrt. and Talentis Group Zrt. Since Opus, which is owned by Mészáros, is the majority shareholder of Viresol and Talentis is also owned by the Hungarian billionaire, it is common to refer to Viresol as his company but it is worth bearing in mind that László Szíjj, who is the owner of the luxury yacht used by Péter Szijjártó, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and several other member of the government elite, also has a stake in it.

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The company’s proximity to the Hungarian government elite is clearly demonstrated by the fact that in 2017, Minister Mihály Varga laid the foundation stone of the starch factory, and two years later, on 11 February 2019, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán gave a speech at the inauguration of Viresol’s new wheat processing plant and posted a photo album with Mészáros on Facebook. The investment was backed by the state with over HUF 6 billion.

In 2019, the year of its opening, Viresol had a net turnover of HUF 4.8 billion, of which HUF 327.7 million was profit after tax. In 2020, when it received a HUF 1.3 billion subsidy from the Ministry of Finance, its turnover was almost three times higher than the previous year, at HUF 16.8 billion net, but it made a loss of HUF 214.8 million.

The company polluted the water

In November 2019, we were the first to report that hydrogen sulfide and nitrogen monoxide have been found in concentrations above the health limit at the Mátra Power Plant in Visonta. The industrial quantities of these materials could only have been released from the starch factory on the neighbouring site, where it caused gas leaks that caused mass sickness.

Toxic gases released at Mátra Power Plant, locals blame Lőrinc Mészáros’s starch factory

Hydrogen sulfide and nitrogen monoxide have been found in concentrations above the health limit and phosphine has also been detected in gas leakages at the Mátra Power Plant in Visonta, Hungary last week.

Because of all this, in 2020 Hungarian Disaster Management Authority banned Viresol from further use of the Őzse Valley Water Reservoir.

Translated by Zita Szopkó. The original Hungarian version of this article was written by Katalin Erdélyi and can be found here


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