How to waste public funds

New York apartment, luxury fireworks and old friends on the tourist agency’s payout list

We were curious about the cost of last year’s national celebrations on 20 August. The fireworks and events were organised by the Hungarian Tourist Agency, but the spending was not available on their website. After three months of stalling, in response to our freedom of information request, they sent us a list of their contracts since the beginning of 2018, on which we found several interesting things.

(Saint) Stephen I was the first Hungarian king, he founded the Christian Hungarian state. He reigned from 975 to 15 August 1038 and was canonised 50 years after his death, on 20 August 1083. It is St Stephen’s Day, a national holiday in Hungary with public events and fireworks in the evening.

In 2022, the celebration of the founding of the state was out of the ordinary because the National Meteorological Service predicted a storm, so the fireworks were cancelled. The thunderstorm did not arrive, so the heads of the meteorological service had to go: they were fired due to the „wrong” weather forecast. The fireworks were held a week later, on 27 August.

The programmes were organised by the Hungarian Tourism Agency (HTA), as every year. As we reported in July 2022, HTA stated that the price of the fireworks is already known: the rockets cost HUF 1.3 billion net. However, this amount is hardly the total cost. In 2021 alone, the fireworks and the insurance for the fireworks and other state programmes cost HUF 3.1 billion, and the entire programme cost HUF 12 billion.

In 2022, the four-day event from 18 August included an air parade, a flag-raising ceremony, a visit to the Holy Crown, a festive mass, a procession held in honour of the Holy Right hand (hand of St Stephan), concerts, a Street of Hungarian Flavours, a festival, and they promised „Europe’s biggest fireworks display”.

Hungarian Tourism Agency secretive about the price tag of the August 20 fireworks – English

Hungarian Tourism Agency (MTÜ) tried to hide how much public money it plans to spend on the programmes for the 20th August celebrations and the fireworks display in Hungary in 2022. The reason given was that this “data will be used to make decisions”, so it cannot be made public for 10 years.

We tried to find information on expenditure on the agency’s website, because all public bodies are required to publish a list of their contracts over HUF 5 million. But despite the law, there was no such information on the agency’s website. We therefore filed a freedom of information request to the Tourism Agency in August, asking for a list of its contracts since the beginning of 2018.  The agency delayed its reply for 3 months, citing the state of emergency imposed by the government. Finally, at the end of November, a list of contracts was sent, including several interesting expenditures.

Cool flat near Manhattan

For example, the HTA rented an apartment from the beginning of April 2018 for 1 year until the end of March 2019. The rent was USD 2,915 per month, which was approximately 743,000 forints per month at the exchange rate of 255 at the time. After a one-month break, from 1 May 2019 to the end of May 2020, they rented an apartment for 13 months from the same company for a slightly more expensive USD 3,030 per month. At the exchange rate of 290 at the time, this amounted to 878,700 forints per month.

So first for 12 months at 743 thousand forints (8.9 million), then for 13 months at roughly 879 thousand forints (11.4 million)

the total cost of renting this American flat was HUF 20.3 million.

Fortunately, the second contract also lists the property address as 333 River Street, Apartment 538, Hoboken. Hoboken is located in the State of New Jersey and is part of the New York metropolitan area. It is located on the banks of the Hudson River, across from Manhattan Island. As the street name suggests, the building is located on the riverfront, with great views of the water and the famous Manhattan skyscrapers if you choose the right apartment.

According to the Google street map, it is a monumental red-brick multi-unit building with lots of apartments, and surprisingly green for a big city, with two parks next to it.

333 River Street, Hoboken – Hudson river and Manhattan in the background (source: Google Street View)

Apartment 538 in the building, which is rented by the agency, is also listed on the advertising sites. The apartment is described as being approximately 67 square meters (719 square feet) in size, and consists of 1 bedroom, 1 living room with kitchen, 1 bathroom and 1 small hall/lounge.

The building has a concierge service, laundry, underground parking, bicycle storage, children’s playroom and adult community room and gym for the convenience of residents. Although the property is no longer for rent or sale, according to the photographic advertisements, it is listed on one page for a rent of $2 250 (no doubt a previous price), which is much cheaper than the Tourism Agency paid for it.

According to the list of contracts, the agency rented the trendy apartment “to the US international country specialist”. About this title on the HTA website says: “Within the Directorate for International Relations, international market experts, so-called country specialists, work in priority sending markets to maximise the number of tourists from the country in question”.

At the beginning of March 2019, published an article about the presentation of the HTA country specialists to the Association of Hungarian Travel Agencies. In this article, Zsuzsanna Sarmon is listed as the country specialist for the USA and Canada, who was appointed by the Tourism Agency on 1 January 2018. Her announcement also states that she will be “based in New York in April following the training period”, so the Hudson waterfront apartment was most likely rented to her.

Zsuzsanna Sarmon on an online event in the US

Old friends everywhere

The contract list includes several companies close to the government. For example, the tourism agency commissioned a study from the Századvég Foundation. The think-tank has been regularly commissioned by the state since 2010 and its research always accurately reflects the views of Viktor Orbán and his government, whether on the family support system, the opposition or George Soros.

Also on the list is the construction company WHB, which has won a series of public procurement contracts. The company is owned by Attila Paár, a business partner of the Prime Minister’s son-in-law. Mr Paár bought István Tiborcz’s stake in Elios when the European Union’s Anti-Fraud Office started investigating the company’s scandalous EU-funded street lighting projects.

The former company of interior minister Sándor Pintér, Civil Biztonsági Zrt., also worked for the HTA: they have been guarding the Bálna cultural centre since autumn 2020. The government’s other favourite security company, Valton, has been contracted to guard the agency’s headquarters.

The companies of the Hungarian propaganda tzar, Gyula Balásy, have received orders worth over HUF 8 billion from the HTA. Balásy’s firms, New Land Media Kft. and Lounge Design Kft. organise the governmental propaganda campaigns for tens of billions of forints every year.

Data Protection Authority rules Atlatszo’s camera drone footage of propaganda tzar’s private property legal – English

Átlátszó released drone footage taken of the newly purchased luxury mansion of Gyula Balásy and his companies. Balásy is one of the owners in New Land Media Kft. and Lounge Design Kft., organisers of governmental propaganda campaigns for tens of billions of forints every year.

Celebration and fireworks for HUF 10 billion

After our FOI-request, the Tourism Agency put its public interest data on its website. So now they are complying with the law and their expenditures are free to browse.

The price of last year’s public celebrations on 20 August was also published in a separate table. Of course, it is not just about the 1.3 billion HUF price of the rockets, as the agency had previously claimed.

According to the list published on their website, a net amount of

HUF 10.3 billion has been spent on the 2022 state foundation programmes.

Of this, the fireworks, as well as the organisation and security tasks related to them and other state events, cost a total of HUF 3.2 billion net.

Written and translated by Katalin Erdélyi. The original, more detailed Hungarian version of this story is available here and here. Photo: Fireworks in Budapest on August 27, 2022 (credit: MTI/Péter Lakatos)