New Bríza-era SPF deals uncovered

DETAILS have emerged about previously unknown, suspicious land transfers approved at the Slovak Land Fund (SPF) during the term of Branislav Bríza, the Sme daily wrote.

DETAILS have emerged about previously unknown, suspicious land transfers approved at the Slovak Land Fund (SPF) during the term of Branislav Bríza, the Sme daily wrote.

Bríza, a former deputy general manager at the Fund, was dismissed last November, along with then-Agriculture Minister Miroslav Jureňa (HZDS), for shady contracts concerning restored property in Veľký Slavkov, in the High Tatras.

Speaking at a press conference then, Prime Minister Robert Fico uttered this explanation for his decision to sack Jureňa: "We will never respect thievery and fraud concerning public property."
Police are still investigating the Veľký Slavkov case.

But a recent report in Sme revealed that other shady contracts Bríza signed in April 2007 had transferred ownership of lucrative property in Veľká Lomnica, in the High Tatras, to GVM, a company close to Vladimír Mečiar, a former prime minister and current chairman of the Movement for Democratic Slovakia (HZDS).

Milan Bališ, GVM's co-owner, has known Mečiar for about six years and was seen accompanying him to Spain. Gabriel Vysaník, another of GVM's co-owners, was on the HZDS election team in 1998. And Pavol Talčík, an executive in GVM, owns a guest house next to Elektra, Mečiar's luxury villa in Trenčianske Teplice.

Bríza approved the contracts on April 10, 2007, when the SPF's general manager was out of the office on holiday, Sme wrote. The contracts restored more than 675,000 square metres of land to people from eastern Slovakia, who promptly sold it to GVM for Sk3 million, according to Sme.
The market value of the land was actually Sk1 billion.

Fico's statements on the Veľká Lomnica transfer have not been as grand.

On April 21, he stated during a press conference that the government had failed to find a legal strategy for regaining the land.

"It is simply problematic to intervene in property ... to violate the right to ownership is a huge problem, even though it was procured unethically," Fico said.

Fico asked new Agriculture Minister Zdenka Kramplová (HZDS) to draw up legislation that would ensure the SPF's transparency. Four months later, Kramplová presented the government with a plan, which it began to discuss on April 23, but the discussion was abruptly ended.

"I will not elaborate on why, so far," Kramplová told the TA3 news TV channel.

Nonetheless, Fico has been optimistic.

"The SPF isn't out to harm anyone," Fico told journalists at a press conference following a cabinet meeting. "I have undergone a lot in connection with the Fund. Thank you, but I am not interested anymore."

The opposition has repeatedly called for the release of all the SPF's contracts, including those signed in 1990s.

On April 23, 2008, SDKÚ MP Lucia Žitňanská told the Slovak Radio: "It is clear that the SPF needs public oversight. It is necessary to check all SPF contracts."

The opposition has decided to introduce its own bill about the SPF.

On February 26, the private Markíza TV station reported that authorities have brought charges against Bríza, accusing him of abuse of power and blackmail.

Prosecutors allege that Bríza forced heads of the SPF's regional offices to facilitate the illegal transfers by threatening to sack them if they didn't cooperate. Helena Osuská, also a deputy general manager at the Fund, has also been charged with aiding the fraudulent deals.

Jana Tőkőlyová, spokesperson for the Prosecutor General's office, declined comment.

"We must wait until the investigation is concluded," she told Markíza on April 21.

She refused to provide an estimate on when the investigation would be completed.

After the land transfers in Veľký Slavkov came to light in November 2007, the SPF refrained from restoring any property for more than four months.

About 70,000 people are still waiting to be provided with land in substitution for what was expropriated during socialism.

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