Vol 2, No 2
17 January 2000
C S A R D A S:
A Law Unto Themselves? White Collar Crime, the Police and Corruption in Hungary, Part Two
Click here to read Part One of this series of articles
The accusations levelled in the Szeghalom affair had assumed such damaging proportions as to compel László Gál and his superiors in the Ministry of Home Affairs as well as the customs authorities to respond publicly. Gál was particularly aggrieved by the charges centering on his alleged possession of an incriminating video tape of certain of the police officers in his precinct cavorting in a brothel with under aged girls.
He dismissed the claims that he would not only fail to take action were such a tape to exist, but that he would actively conceal it or even utilise it in order to blackmail any colleagues who knew of his alleged involvement with the oil Mafia as "ridiculous" and "absurd."
Gábor Kuncze, former Minister of Home Affairs, upon whose integrity [László] Pallag's imputations also cast grave doubts, stated on TV that anyone capable of making such statements was either sneaky or half-witted, either way evidently not to be trusted. Meanwhile, his successor in the post, Mr Sándor Pintér, classified the whole sorry tale as a fabrication.
Mr Pallag had no compunctions about ruffling the feathers of the VPOP (the Customs and Excise Board's National Headquarters) either, casting suspicion on its officials for having postponed indefinitely their investigations into the oil-related fraud cases he had informed them of some years previously. Once again, the reply was furnished in the glare of a TV studio (news is quick to go stale and the attention span of the average viewer is presumed to be short).
Mr József Bencze, Director-General of the VPOP, pointed out on the MTV's breakfast time news and current affairs programme that the Board had looked into every oil-related case on its files, including those that dated back over a number of years, comprising a grand total of 859. In 50 of these, sentences had been passed, in a further 108 indictments had been prepared, whilst in 120 the indictment had been served.
Valéria Kuzma, daughter of Mihály Kuzma, whose unexpected suicide served to fuel speculations about Mafia activities in Békés county, rejected (on 1 October) the decision taken by the Metropolitan Attorney General's Office to designate the County Prosecutor's Office as the authority empowered to carry out the investigation into the suspicious circumstances surrounding her father's untimely death. She insisted instead that the Metropolitan Office be responsible for pursuing the matter in the interests of guaranteeing impartiality.
On 12 October, the Independent Police Trade Union, the FRSZ (Független Rendőrszakszervezet) issued a document dealing with the financial, structural, leadership and moral crisis faced by the police force in Hungary [for this section, see Magyar Nemzet, 14 October 1999]. "The rapid growth of corruption...places us in a new situation qualitatively. If half of the colleagues questioned feel that the police are corruptible, there is serious cause for concern."
Such a statement is not attributable to a lack of self-esteem or poor self-image on the part a not inconsiderable section of the police force. It is a gut reaction shared by many ordinary Hungarians, who instinctively side with Tibor Karancsi, regardless of the ultimate truth of his interpretation of events in Szeghalom, because it corroborates their own observations and experiences. For many, no further proof of guilt is required, the case is closed.
Judit Rákosi of Magyar Nemzet sounded out Ágota Fábián, Secretary General of the Union and its President, László Rekvényi on the publication, the deaths in Békés county and the prevailing mood within the force in general. On the issue of police corruption, they replied that the survey of police officers referred to above was telling in its results. Following a brief spell in the wake of the collapse of Communism where the police enjoyed an increase in public sympathy, faith in law enforcers had once again dwindled.
Both were firmly convinced that the deaths of Kuzma and Gábor Dénes alongside the widespread and persistent assumption that the police cultivated Mafia connections had inflicted a great deal of damage on the (already ailing) prestige of the force. Mihály Kuzma was one of the Union's founding members, of stable character and held in high esteem for his professional ability, who was not wont either to speak about his work or to ask for help in relation to it. His death came as an unpleasant surprise, and the Union had given his family financial support following the bereavement.
In Rekvényi's opinion, his colleagues in Békés county remain tight-lipped because they are afraid of the possible consequences of disclosing everything they know. The best means, therefore, of establishing exactly what happened would be for a Parliamentary Committee of Enquiry to be set up. This course of action would have the added benefit of helping to restore shattered confidence in the rule of law.
The Union had in spring organised a series of five demonstrations designed to bring the adverse conditions under which the police are forced to perform their duties to the forefront of public debate. As Rekvényi put it: "We want to negotiate, since the entire future of the country might hinge on whether or not we are capable of solving the problems afflicting the police force."
On 11 October, the ORFK (National Police Headquarters) officially presented the outcome of its investigations (the culmination of the labours of 50 experts, who had invested 8000 working hours in establishing the facts) into Karancsi's claims. Head of cabinet, László Valéria representing Mr Pintér, Balázs Orosz, a lawyer called in at the express wish of the Home Affairs Minister to ensure a proper balance was struck between the governmental and non-governmental side of the investigation - Orosz had indeed successfully conducted Mr Pinter's defence when his own probity was being called into question - and Péter Orbán, national chief of police, confirmed the findings.
Mr Orosz was careful to explain that he had only accepted the task on condition that he be granted access to documents otherwise classified as state secrets which might have a bearing on the case (such as court decisions authorising the use of secret service methods of the type employed by the RSZVSZ, for example). Mr Karancsi, Kuzma and Dénes had informed the RSZVSZ (Rendvédelmi Szervek Védelmi Szolgálat), the elite internal affairs service answerable to the Ministry of Home Affairs, responsible for the monitoring of inter alia the police force, frontier guards and prison warders) of oil and alcohol-related fraud and of the possible links between the suspects and high-ranking police officers. Far from ignoring this information, the ORFK's Central Crime Fighting Unit and the RSZVSZ ordered several investigations, some of which included secret service methods with the necessary clearance from the responsible Minister without portfolio. All these efforts proved fruitless, drawing a blank.
László Gál, then county chief of police in Békés, did not escape attention: subsequent to Kuzma's suicide, charges were preferred against him, but the prosecutor dropped the investigation. In short, the oil affair in Békés county, police corruption, Mafia links and foul play in connection with the deaths of the police officers had all been inventions on the part of an individual who had become unfit for service.
A press, hungry for sensational headlines, had lent credence to these lurid imaginings in a cynical and self-interested abuse of the rights of individuals, both living and dead. Consequently, Karancsi would be sued for libel (with an estimated damages bill of anything up to HUF 100 million [USD 400,000 ) and possibly also taken to court for his malicious charges and the press should steel itself to recant much of the contents of its column inches.
Delving into the details of the findings, Mr Károly Krozsél, head of the Monitoring Department, gave a more sober rendition of what had actually occurred in Füzesgyarmat in May of 1995. Karancsi himself was to blame for the failure to pounce on the criminals responsible for oil-related fraud on the site and for the fact that vital evidence of their activities was allowed to disappear before the police and customs officers arrived on the scene, since the decision to leave the site was entirely his own and had not been imposed on him by his superiors. No cover up of oil-related fraud had taken place, six cases had been looked into and four of these had resulted in indictments.
As far as the deaths of officers were concerned, there was not a shred of evidence to support theories of contract killings disguised as self-slaughter, nor could any relationship be unearthed between the tragedies and any of the oil-related cases. Mr Kuzma had, on the morning of 27 February, turned his standard issue PA-63 on himself, leaving a farewell note behind him. Part of the blame for Kuzma's death might have been the raid on his house motivated by the discovery of several empty oil cans.
The police chiefs now felt that this means of proceeding had been exaggerated and unprofessional (cold comfort to Valeria and her mother!). Rumours to the effect that Kuzma had been eating whilst he shot himself in the mouth and that the last line in the farewell note, referring to his impending death had been added in someone else's hand were dismissed as unsubstantiated. The circumstances of Dénes' death were deemed to be equally clear.
Allegations and counter-claims
In a more measured press release on the occasion of the rebuttal, Gál wrote: "Because of the completely unfounded attacks against my person which have appeared in the press, I deem it necessary to take legal action against those individuals who have repeatedly denounced me and have been responsible for blackening my name. I am initiating criminal proceedings against Member of Parliament László Pallag for false charges. I have not committed any criminal act and the complaint filed against me is therefore devoid of any foundation."
On 12 October, it was the turn of the customs officers to refute the allegations against them. Mihály Arnold, national commander, denied that any procedural irregularities had occurred and that there had been the slightest hint of machinations to withhold the truth from the public. Indeed, no less a figure than the Prime Minister himself had issued instructions to the effect that assertions of abuses within the customs service must be taken seriously and the facts brought to light. A fact-finding enquiry had been charged with the task of trawling through every case of oil-related fraud that had been tackled by the customs authorities since 1992.
Mr Arnold was well-armed with an impressive array of statistics representing an eloquent vindication of his staff: 902 cases had been dealt with, the value of oil and oil derivatives which the suspects had attempted to sell illegally in Hungary totalled over HUF 90 billion [USD 36 millions], the vast majority of instances of contrabanding and tax and excise duty fraud had led to charges being brought. and tThe three main centres of oil-related crime were identified as Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg county with 171 cases, Bács-Kiskun county with 138 cases and Csongrád county with 84 (Békés not even making it to the top of the league table with a meagre 43 cases!).
István Tibor, deputy commander of the Customs and Excise Investigation Office in Békés county, confirmed that the local customs investigators had been requested by the county police headquarters to take part in a raid prior to Kuzma's suicide. The customs officers were asked to shed light on a suspected case of oil-smuggling. Mr Tibor was surprised to discover that the address he had been given was Kuzma's, but was far more astonished by the numbers in which the police had turned out at the scene.
A number of jerry cans of fuel had been found in the cars parked in front of the house, but their owners could account for their origin by producing receipts. Mr Tibor could therefore find no indication that a crime had been committed and did not see the need to set foot on Mr Kuzma's property.
A few days later, Antal Klavács, also a customs officer in Békés county, voiced his belief that Pallag had been misinformed about events. The police, Lajos Kucsera to be precise, had contacted the customs authorities at 14.00 hours on the day of the raid on the site at Macskás in Füzesgyarmat and it had taken them one and a half hours to reach the former co-operative, not the six hours that Karancsi had claimed.
Karancsi's reaction was laconic: he had expected nothing less than a full-blooded defence of the force's honour, but failed to grasp why, if he had really bungled the operations in Füzesgyarmat, his superiors had not immediately launched proceedings against him for dereliction of duty.
In the early hours of 17 October, Karancsi became embroiled in another incident at a restaurant. In the House for Entrepreneurs, a meeting place with restaurant attached, in Szeghalom guests at two tables, one of which was occupied by Karancsi and two companions, engaged in an altercation culminating in two men setting upon János Gidai (owner of Full Marker). The terrified businessman sought refuge by bolting into a corridor, but Karancsi and his friends chased after him, forcing him to kneel down in front of them and beg forgiveness.
An eyewitness, Andrea Fazekas, RTL's correspondent for Békés county gave her version of events: Karancsi arrived at the restaurant alone on Sunday evening, sitting at the table where he had earlier had dinner with some relatives and friends. Shortly afterwards, Gidai entered, heading a large group. One of Gidai's party then began hurling abuse at Karancsi, informing him that "Your life isn't worth a forint!." Rather than losing his cool, Karancsi immediately called Pallag, saying that he intended to step outside for a breath of fresh air before taking a look upstairs to see if there was any space available. A few moments later, the police came rushing in, making their way upstairs.
Fazekas consulted both Karancsi and an acquaintance for further details of what went on. Two close-cropped young men in leather jackets attacked Gidai without giving any indication as to why he had caused them offence. Karancsi and a waiter tried to break up the fight, separating the brawlers. Gidai, who had been knocked to the floor, knelt in front of Karancsi, and kept pleading "Don't hurt me, you know I only gave my name to the case!," to which Karancsi replied "Get up, you are pathetic when you act like this!"
On 8 December, charges for rowdiness were brought against Karancsi and his accomplices by the county police headquarters in Jász-Nagykun-Szolnok and submitted to the Szeghalom City Prosecutor. The account of what went on in the charge sheet differs from Fazekas' rendering. Karancsi was amusing himself in the company of his friends in the restaurant of the entrepreneur's centre when a second group of guests began making comments.
Karancsi then used his mobile phone to draft in some friends from Püspökladány, who turned on two members of the other party, leading to the injury of Gidai and one of his relatives. Karancsi then subjected Gidai to the humiliating ordeal of compelling him to kneel down in front of him. The ORFK charged the Jász-Kiskun-Szolnok county police with the task of investigating the matter further, as their counterparts in Békés county indicated that they could not guarantee impartiality. 33 witnesses were questioned and, as a result of their testimony, eight suspects were charged.
Meanwhile in Parliament...
On 3 November, the Parliament's Committee on Local Government and Law and Order Committee proposed the creation of a sub-committee, comprising 11 members to review recent developments until such a stage as a fully-fledged Parliamentary Committee of Enquiry was convened to look into oil-related fraud in Békés county.
In the course of the debate, Attila Búza (Fidesz, Alliance of Young Democrats) argued that the advantage of such an approach was that the sub-committee could continue to work outside of the regular committee week should the need arise. By contrast, Mária Kóródi (SZDSZ, the Alliance of Free Democrats) called for a clearer definition of the sub-committee's precise mandate, whilst, giving full vent to his scepticism concerning the need for such a body, Károly Tóth (MSZP, Socialists) dubbed the undertaking as the world's most frivolous sub-committee.
If, on the following week, a Committee of Enquiry were to be approved, the sub-committee would automatically cease to exist without ever having commenced its work. At the meeting, all political parties with the exception of the Kisgazdapárt (Party of Independent Smallholders) - the party to which Pallag belongs - and the MIÉP (Hungarian Justice and Life Party) had put forward candidates to represent them (Attila Búza, Ildikó Bernáth and Zoltán Kovács for Fidesz, László Balogh, Balázs Pozsgai and Károly Tóth for the MSZP, Mária Kóródi for the SZDSZ and Lászlo Szászfalvi for the MDF).
The following day (5 November), the Metropolitan Attorney General's Office announced that a joint investigation would be held into the charges brought by Pallag and Valéria Kuzma concerning the goings on in Békés county. Pallag proclaimed, after having consulted a graphologist, Ágnes Katona, on Kuzma's farewell note, that the information he had received had been corroborated by an expert and that he would therefore refer her findings to the prosecutor as well as the Committee of Enquiry.
The director of the Institute of Graphology, Edit Tóth, commented that an expert would be appointed to participate in the official investigation and that the police had previously approached the Institute in conjunction with the suicide note, going so far as to send it, but that they had cancelled the assignment without stating their reasons soon afterwards.
Calling in the FBI
On 10 December, Valéria Kuzma made public a letter she had received from Peter Tufo, US ambassador to Hungary. In an act that smacks of despair, Kuzma's daughter had written to the diplomat at the end of November requesting that her father's death be investigated by independent experts from the FBI. Mr Tufo's tactful and objective response was to point out gently that the FBI has no authority to delve into matters outside of the frontiers of the United States unless specifically asked to do so by the government of the country concerned.
Undaunted, the young woman had then written to the Hungarian Prime Minister, Mr Orbán, to grant a full authorisation to the American bureau. The implications are clear: Ms Kuzma feels that there is no such thing as justice in Hungary and that the system has let her and her family down. The only recourse, the last glimmer of hope would be that outsiders, who would presumably not be fobbed off by excuses or bribed (or subdued) into silence, would succeed in penetrating the thicket of vested interests and lies that had defeated even the most honest and dedicated Hungarian officers.
On balance, we are left with two options, either to follow the official line of the ORFK and the customs board or to place our faith in Karancsi and Pallag. Whatever the ultimate truth, the claims and counter claims issued paint a depressing picture of the relationship between the police and the public in Hungary. Any self-respecting conspiracy theorist would maintain that the odds are stacked against Karancsi being cleared since the state, or in this instance its enforcement authorities, can fabricate or suppress evidence at will and therefore has the upper hand.
Editor's Note: Owing to its length this article has been divided into two sections.
Click here for section two of this article, which contains more on the police and corruption, including some Hungarian police jokes.
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