Tunnelling the tunnel

THE SAGA surrounding construction of the most expensive highway tunnel in Slovakia's history, at Branisko, could end in court. A Slovak investigator, in cooperation with Swiss police, has now charged 10 individuals with financial crimes in connection with the tunnel's construction.

THE SAGA surrounding construction of the most expensive highway tunnel in Slovakia's history, at Branisko, could end in court. A Slovak investigator, in cooperation with Swiss police, has now charged 10 individuals with financial crimes in connection with the tunnel's construction.

Allegations that the Branisko tunnel project was 'tunnelled', i.e. siphoned of funds, by senior managers at the Slovak Road Administration (SSC) were first made not by police, but by Prime Minister Robert Fico during a visit to Switzerland.

"The investigation by the Swiss Police discovered substantial information about how the Branisko tunnel was tunnelled in Slovakia," Fico told journalists, and continued: "On April 1, a suit was filed against a large number of people, top officials at the SSC during the previous [government's] term, for grave financial crimes."

Police spokesman Martin Korch told The Slovak Spectator that, according to preliminary calculations, those charged were responsible for losses to the Slovak Republic amounting to Sk260 million.

According to Korch, the investigator charged ten people with having founded and supported a criminal group and with committing a fraud, allegedly in 2001.

Among those accused is the SSC's former general director Dušan Matonok and two other former directors, Roman Veselka and Valerián Horváth.

Along with them, seven other former employees of the SSC face charges including Ján G., a Slovak with Swiss citizenship, who also represented the Swiss company Erga Suisse. Ján G. is also facing criminal prosecution in Switzerland for bribing public officials and money laundering.

Representatives of the technology supplier for Branisko, ZPA Křížik Prešov, also stand accused in the case.

The accused SSC managers are alleged to have got Erga Suisse appointed as a sub-contractor to the main technology supplier via an appendix to the contract with ZPA Křížik.

"Via [a] dummy firm, they issued exaggerated invoices and inflated the prices for materials as well as for the work," said Korch. "In this way they obtained money fraudulently, which ended up in their private Swiss bank accounts."

It is alleged, about Sk20 million ended up in the account of Roman V., Dušan M. received Sk5.6 million, and Valerián H. Sk4.3 million.

"The police have been investigating the case since 2004," said Korch. "Information provided by our Swiss colleagues in 2006 moved the investigation forward."

Fico also claimed that political responsibility for fraud in the Branisko highway tunnel project lies with the opposition party, the Social Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ). According to Fico, the method used to siphon funds was "quite primitive".

The winning contract to build and deliver the tunnel was agreed at Sk670 million, while the final amount increased to Sk1.97 billion. Fico admitted that construction costs might have grown, but not by as much as this.

Fico described how he thought the fraud had happened: "They issued fictitious invoices for works that were not done, and these invoices were then paid and signed by the responsible representatives at the SSC including the top ones, [who were] nominated by the SDKÚ [when the party was in power]."

Fico also described how the money went to an account in Switzerland, and was then re-divided into the personal accounts of people from Slovakia. "I can continue and say that the investigation - and many things prove this - will lead to Liechtenstein, and also to Great Britain," Fico added.

The prime minister went on to claim that the SDKÚ opposition party led by Mikuláš Dzurinda, who was prime minister between 1998 and 2006, was responsible for the fraud. He explained that top representatives of the Slovak Road Administration, nominated by the SDKÚ, committed the fraud. And it was the SDKÚ that bore responsibility for its nominees: "It is impossible not to know about such things," he told journalists on April 16.

Dzurinda himself completely denied this: "The premier has just lost his nerve," Dzurinda said to the Slovak media, adding that top SSC representatives are nominated by the minister, and not by a political party.

"The prime minister has personal problems, he cannot sufficiently prove his property ownership with documents, he has problems with his coalition partners, lately with [Slovak National Party (SNS) leader] Mr. Slota, and - probably due to his nerves - he is coming out with ever more absurd things," Dzurinda responded.

Fico also suggested that Gabriel Palacka, former transport minister in Dzurinda's cabinet from 1998 to 1999, and former treasurer and top official of the SDKÚ, has a lot to do with the case: "The right to dispose of these accounts had a person, whose name I will give just as initials, Gabriel P.," Fico said. Palacka has previously worked for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in London.

Palacka has rejected this claim as a blatant lie. "I had never anything to do with this thing, not to mention the right to dispose of any accounts in Switzerland. I do not know personally the people accused by Police, I have never met them," Palacka said in an audio statement to the SITA newswire.

According to Palacka, Fico has fabricated unsubstantiated accusations in this case as he had done many times before. Palacka said he believes Fico used his name merely to connect the whole case to the biggest opposition party (the SDKÚ).

Those charged in the Branisko case also responded with a statement to the Slovak media in which they suggested that the case had been fabricated.

On April 16, the accused former SSC official Roman Veselka told the SITA newswire that, among other things, the investigator's conclusion that the technology supplier to the Branisko project was connected to money transfers to former SSC managers was not justified: "Police received reliable information from the Swiss authorities that the activity was not related to the construction of the Branisko tunnel in any way."

He stressed that neither internal nor external controls had detected any issuing of fictitious invoices, nor inflation of prices. All works and goods delivered were duly invoiced, which was confirmed by an inspection by the Supreme Control Office. Veselka added that as well as the invoicing being subject to double checks, the project was also overseen by an external construction supervision agency.

Police refused to explain these inconsistencies. "We shall not provide any further information in this phase of the investigation," Korch told The Slovak Spectator. "And we shall not react to things published in media; nor to the prime minister's words," Korch added.

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