Vol 2, No 1
10 January 2000
C S A R D A S:
A Law Unto Themselves? White Collar Crime, the Police and Corruption in Hungary, Part Three
Part 1 of this article
Part 2 of this article
Miklós Halász, journalist, travelled to Szeghalom to gauge the reaction to these events locally [see Magyar Nemzet, 2 October 1999] and discovered that the whole sorry affair had entailed a number of unfortunate side effects. On the morning of 27 September, the foreign owner of an Italo-Hungarian enterprise packed the toy assembly plant's equipment onto lorries, shipping it out of the country and leaving the 40 hapless employees redundant through no fault of their own. In a town where the unemployment rate far exceeds the national average, this indeed came as a blow. Local gossip attributes the sudden departure to the oil scandals, assuming that the Italian's business partners had been tangled up in the web of intrigue.
Wherever he went, Halász was confronted by resentment at the damage done to the county's reputation coupled with a reluctance to speak out in public, to put a name to an opinion. The prevailing fear is that anyone not protected by anonymity would be in immediate danger of losing his job, a sacrifice too great to expect in such uncertain times. In a small town, nothing escapes the attention of neighbours. Though they might not readily admit to it, they cannot help but observe who has a new car, house or starts to embark on frequent trips abroad. Can suspicions as to the origin of such "windfalls" be ascribed merely to petty jealousy? One man who did have the courage to speak his mind voiced support for Karancsi according to the "no smoke without fire" maxim: "Look, Karancsi threw the shit against the fan, that's why he had to go. Another interesting thing is that here in Szeghalom about 20 to 30 people suddenly became very rich. Here you can put a number on the people who have a job. Those who have a fortune in excess of a few tens of millions of forints didn't conjure up the money out of a top hat, they must have made it from oil. We can see into each other's wallets. Karancsi called attention to a lot of things. I don't know anything about what he might have done, but he is the popular hero of the moment. This is why we started a collection. We don't want to see him starve".
Halász also persuaded a city official to talk "If memory serves me well, it was 1992 when the Mayor's office was broken into. It was then that I got to know Karancsi personally. He was in charge of the investigation. He took one look at the print left behind by the shoe and said who the thief was. Within the space of a few hours, his supposition proved correct, as they caught the burglar. What I want to illustrate by this story is that Karancsi knows local society like the back of his hand. If he maintains that something is true, it is not very likely that he is wrong".
Karancsi stands transfigured as an emblem of resistance, the lone crusader, undaunted by the lies and bullying tactics of his crooked opponents, gritting his teeth and standing his ground regardless of the cost. His actions thus assume a wider, symbolic significance, elevating his struggle beyond the immediate case in hand. Will the heroic image withstand the buffetings of sordid reality?
Travelling to Békéscsaba, Halász interviews Valeria Kuzma (23), who explains why she waited one and a half years following her father's death before preferring charges [for this section, see also Magyar Nemzet, 14 and 19 October, 1999]. The strong suspicions which she and her mother now harbour were kindled by the gradual accumulation of written sources pertaining to the case. She unflinchingly believes that her father was not the type of man who would resort to suicide even in desperate straits. In her eyes, he was ambitious, fond of his work and an adoring head of family. She dismisses the notion that the letter found in his handwriting was actually a farewell note. Having requested access to it, she made it available to experts for analysis, and was encouraged by them not to let the matter rest, as they did not feel that it could be treated as suicide. Her father had reported within the family prior to his death that he had gotten out of his depth in the oil question and feared that he would be liquidated. He was not wont to lapse into paranoia. Moreover, the doctor called in to establish the exact time of death and recorded it as having taken place between four and six in the morning, whereas Kuzma set off from home well after six a.m. His body was found in his office by his desk at nine thirty. In spite of the office being situated inside a building where other police officers were present, no one heard the shot fired. If he had indeed shot himself whilst seated, his body could not possibly have fallen from the seat at the angle in which it was found. On the day of his death, Kuzma was due to appear at a hearing in conjunction with a petty offence. In spite of his failure to arrive, his colleagues did not begin looking for him until well over an hour had passed. His secretary did not make an official statement concerning the disappearance of documents from his cupboard. István Ignác, one of Kuzma's former colleagues wrote to the family to give assurances that Kuzma's documents had turned up, but that they had been classified as state secrets. Was it a mere coincidence that the officer put in charge of the investigation into his suicide was the same person who had led a raid against his house a few days earlier? (The raid was not directed against Kuzma himself, but against his son, Valeria's brother). Result: Valeria Kuzma will not permit representatives of the local authorities to investigate the circumstances of his death. Is this a simple instance of post-rationalisation in the wake of a painful bereavement? After all, it would be easier to pin the blame on the malice of an outside agent than to face up to the implications of voluntary death...
Halász then completed a brief interview with Gál's successor as police chief of Békés county, Dr Ferenc Kurucz. He denied that there was any substance to rumours about a political background to criticisms of the local police force. No one had slurred the honour of his illustrious predecessor, nor had Kurucz deemed it necessary to dismiss anyone who had worked in his immediate entourage. Where staff changes had occurred Kurucz could provide full justification for the steps taken.
Quizzed as to his opinion on Kuzma's suicide, he was understandably guarded. The whole case had been examined meticulously. There could be no doubt that it had been a suicide. The shifting picture of the deceased colleague presented for the delectation of public opinion was influenced by outside suggestion. One day the rumour mill would have it that he had been murdered, the next that he had been driven to taking his own life. However, Kurucz was convinced that his death was indeed suicide.
As to the atmosphere amongst colleagues, he agreed that it had been poisoned by allegations of police corruption: the tension was almost palpable and tempers were frayed. None of this had meant that normal work had ground to a halt. He had no quarrel with Karancsi, and could not provide any details of police corruption as he had no knowledge of any such cases. The wind had been taken out of the sails of organised crime in the county the previous year. Police in Békés county lived in identical circumstances to their counterparts elsewhere: they earned the same, they could live off their salaries and were given loans to help buy their own homes. He himself had been brought into the county to do his job rather than to clean up someone else's mess. His superiors had charged him with the task of cutting crime, and he had scored a success here, pointing to a 20 per cent drop in crimes committed. In Békéscsaba alone, the number of burglaries had fallen by 40 per cent compared with the figures for the year before. Of the five expensive cars stolen, three had been found.
Karancsi found an ally in Lászlo Pallag (49), member of Parliament for Békéscsaba, county President of the Party of Independent Smallholders (Kisgazdapárt) since 1991 [for this section, see Magyar Nemzet, 5 and 19 October 1999, HVG 9 October 1999]. Since the beginning of the 1990s, Pallag had been a tireless campaigner against every manifestation of local crime, with a particular interest in exposing the links between various criminals, although his first hand experience has taught him that dispensing justice is often a frustratingly slow process in Hungary. One illustration was a tax fraud case he followed closely. Half a billion forints was the sum that the Inland Revenue had been cheated of, implying that the actual amount involved was beyond the dreams of avarice for most Hungarians. The case had been on the boil for over six years. The court initially sentenced the entrepreneur concerned to three years imprisonment, but the appeal proceedings led to the entire proceedings being reopened. Whereas a review by experts had been promised within a three month period, six months had already gone by without the remotest sign being given that anything was being done. In Mr Pallag's opinion, even if the appeal were to lead to a conviction, the entrepreneur or his lawyer would still come up with some sort of ruse to ensure that the guilty party did not end up behind bars. Whilst big time criminals walk free, petty offenders, such as shoplifters, have Draconian punishments meted out to them. Similarly, whilst small businesses struggle with red tape and the resulting administrative costs, large-scale and often unscrupulous firms are either bombarded with subsidies or are on the make. Mr Pallag is a staunch believer in the existence of organised crime syndicates in Hungary. If there were no such thing, if the Mafia were a figment of the collective imagination, why would the government have bothered to adopt legislation to combat it, regardless of the lack of tangible results of that legislation?
He fosters good relations with the local police force. Following the eruption of the scandal, he was stopped by an officer whilst driving his Ford Sierra. Instead of the expected identity and car documents check, he was asked to take the investigation into the corruption allegations to its logical conclusion, the reason cited being that the current situation had become intolerable for the police themselves.
Mr Pallag finds that certain unexplained facts suggest that there may have been more to the two suicides than meets the eye: why was it that one of the officers [Kuzma] shot himself in the mouth in the course of eating a meal? Why was it that one officer [Dénes] hanged himself, but there was no sign of what he stood on before embarking on his journey into the hereafter?
Mr Pallag claims to know of over 40 instances of olajszőkítés in Békés county, perpetrated by agricultural cooperatives. The authorities failed to intervene. At least 300 railway tank cars full of oil derivatives were involved. Hardly surprising then, that he would look upon Karancsi's revelations as a godsend. Accordingly, on the morning of 5 October, Pallag officially submitted charges against László Gál at the Metropolitain Attorney General's Office. Pallag's accusations were as follows: as chief of police in the county, Gál headed investigations into a number of cases where he ought to have indicated bias, that he was guilty of aiding and abetting by virtue of his office through failure to act, that he had shown negligence in carrying out mandatory procedures and that he was mixed up in corruption. The root of his dereliction of duty was that he, along with other officers, was in possession of a certain video tape, clandestinely recorded during a tryst at the Gold Club brothel. The tape allegedly contains startling pornographic images of police officers, high-ranking public officials and notable figures from the local underworld frolicking together with prostitutes, some of whom were underage. Pallag is convinced that the oil-stained lackeys of the local mob have been using the tape for some time now to blackmail the officers into silence. Mr Pallag himself cannot provide a copy of the tape, however.
In his impeachment, Mr Pallag specifically proposed that the investigation into these matters should not be placed in the hands of the authorities in Békés county, but should be dealt with by the Metropolitain Office itself. Mr Pallag also made it abundantly clear that, in the event of failure to launch investigations, he had every intention of applying for a Parliamentary Committee of Enquiry to examine possible links between police and customs officers, oil-bleachers and tax fraudsters in Békés county.
This final challenge proved sufficient for Gál to break the his long, self (?)-imposed silence as well as to spur his superiors into leaping to his defence.
Gusztáv Kosztolányi, 9 January, 2000.
Sources used in the writing of this article:
HVG 2 and 9 October, 1999
Magyar Nemzet 17 July, 2, 5, 12, 14 and 19 October, 1999
Copyright (c) 2000 - Central Europe Review and Internet servis, a.s.
All Rights Reserved