Lawyer rebuilds after case

LIFE is slowly returning to normal for Bratislava attorney Ernest Valko. Two weeks after a state prosecutor dropped extortion charges against him, Valko continues to rebuild his practice, and says he is more concerned with his clients than with revenge.

LIFE is slowly returning to normal for Bratislava attorney Ernest Valko. Two weeks after a state prosecutor dropped extortion charges against him, Valko continues to rebuild his practice, and says he is more concerned with his clients than with revenge.

Valko and his client, entrepreneur Ladislav Rehák, spent several days in custody in November 2006 after being arrested on charges that they had extorted several million crowns from the Vittek family from western Slovakia. Police later raided Valko's office, removing "all my files", according to the lawyer.

The Vitteks are still charged with fraud, while the prosecutor has upheld Valko and Rehák's explanation that they had only threatened to go to the police if the Vitteks did not acknowledge having defrauded Rehák in a series of land purchases.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): The supervising prosecutor in the end didn't agree with the police charge of extortion against you, but took almost 16 months to reach this decision. From your point of view, where did the police and the prosecution go wrong?
Ernest Valko (EV): In terms of the police search [of Valko's legal practice in November 2006], that is still under investigation. First, the police inspection department ruled that the police had acted in ignorance, and that no crime was committed. But the Bar Association laid a complaint against this finding, and I don't know the status at the moment. In terms of the case itself, the prosecutor ruled that what happened was not a crime. That's it.

TSS: But you spent several nights in jail on the motion of a prosecutor who did not give any reason for custody, which meant you were immediately released when the custody motion came before a court. Wasn't that at the very least a mistake?
EV: (sigh) I'll answer using the words of the spokesman of the regional prosecutor's office: Unfortunately, such things sometimes happen.

TSS: That's a pretty calm reaction for someone whose law business had to be hurt by these charges.
EV: I agree, it was painful for me, and it still is. You never imagine, even in your darkest dreams, that something like that could happen to you. But it happened. There are so many versions as to why, and what games were going on, that if I decided to concern myself with such matters, I would have no time for anything else. But I want to look to the future. This case is closed for me, I want to look ahead, I have to stabilise my law practice and convince my clients that I didn't commit any such crime. Thank God, most of them have stood by me. That's my main task in the coming days.

TSS: So you're not even going to sue for damages?
EV: I didn't say that, but it's not on today's programme. I'm not going to concern myself with that at this point. I have to look after my clients. They are my concern, not myself. I don't want to go down that road.

TSS: How did your arrest affect your business?
EV: It wasn't good. A lawyer's most important currency is trustworthiness, and a lawyer who is charged with extortion and faces a jail term of 20-25 years to life, as I did.
I think we can all agree that's not a positive situation. It was a big minus for me. As for my clients, my local clients knew me and knew that such things could happen in Slovakia, but it was very difficult to explain to my foreign clients. It was something they couldn't imagine happening in their own countries. Where they come from, if it happens, it says all you need to know about the lawyer.

TSS: When the police searched your office and took your computers, what did they actually take?
EV: My whole server, which means every case and every contract since 1993, even though their orders instructed them to take only those things related to their case, and going back a maximum of six months. But almost all of that stuff is in the public domain, and there was nothing to find anyway because I always strictly insist on doing things according to the law. I'm just surprised they didn't bother to find out how I operate before coming and taking all my stuff.

TSS: In your case, as in the case of Hedviga Malinová, the Hungarian student who was attacked in 2006, and the recent case of corruption in the building of the Branisko tunnel, politicians commented publicly on police investigations. Prime Minister Robert Fico said after your arrest that the public could expect "several interesting days". What do you think of this practice?
EV: Politicians have absolutely no business making statements on criminal cases. Absolutely none, no matter who the case involves, and especially not at the very beginning of a case, when the investigation is just beginning and is vulnerable to being influenced. Because a problem arises - where did they get their information from? Did they see the case file? How was that possible? It's one of the basic principles in a state ruled by law, that criminal cases are handled by the criminal justice system - the police, the prosecutors, and the courts. But for me, what is worse is that people don't feel this way. The public doesn't condemn such practices.
Another question arises when such cases end in a complete fiasco for the police, as they so often do. One has to ask what it was all about.

TSS: Might it have something to do with the fact that you represent former Finance Minister Ivan Mikloš in a libel suit against Fico?
EV: I can't say. We met in court long before that, 10 years ago in the Slobodník versus Feldek case, in which the current prime minister was representing Slovakia.

TSS: Could it be personal?
EV: I would be very surprised if it was.

TSS: Looking at the other side of the coin, you have in the past represented the SDKÚ opposition party in court, and when the SDKÚ was in power from 1998 to 2006, you won your share of political contracts like representing the SPP gas utility. Is there a sense in which, as someone with such political connections, you have to take your lumps now that the SDKÚ is out of power?
EV: I don't see it that way. What exactly is a political contract? SPP is a classic business dispute, for God's sake. Sure, I represented the SDK party before the 1998 elections, but that was above all a legal problem. I'm a lawyer and a citizen, and so what if I hold views to the right of the political spectrum? Is that a crime?

TSS: Has anyone from the police or from the government apologised to you?
EV: No, no. They're quiet.

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