Ladislav Rehák: You can’t escape your friends

FIVE months after the accession of the Robert Fico government, businessman Ladislav Rehák was arrested on two separate counts of extortion and spent 10 days in pre-trial custody. The case was highly politicized, as Rehák had been the largest individual sponsor of the opposition Christian Democrats, and financed an anti-government magazine, Týždeň. Fico commented after Rehák’s second arrest that “a few interesting days await us”.

Entrepreneur Ladislav Rehák asks why it took the police 18 months to investigate a “pretty simple case”.Entrepreneur Ladislav Rehák asks why it took the police 18 months to investigate a “pretty simple case”. (Source: SITA)

FIVE months after the accession of the Robert Fico government, businessman Ladislav Rehák was arrested on two separate counts of extortion and spent 10 days in pre-trial custody. The case was highly politicized, as Rehák had been the largest individual sponsor of the opposition Christian Democrats, and financed an anti-government magazine, Týždeň. Fico commented after Rehák’s second arrest that “a few interesting days await us”.

Rehák claimed all along that he had just been trying to recover money that had been stolen from him by a company accountant, Andrea Kladníková, and two brothers, Viliam and Rastislav Vittek, who had been contracted to buy land in the Záhorie region in Rehák’s name. After an investigation lasting 18 months, a state prosecutor dropped the charges in May, upholding Rehák’s side of the story.
Ladislav Rehák remains among Slovakia’s wealthiest and most influential businessmen, with interests in mobile telephony, waste disposal, publishing and media.

SPEX: Eighteen months ago you were charged with extortion and faced a life sentence...
Ladislav Rehák (LR): Two life sentences.

SPEX: Two life sentences. You spent 10 days in custody. But last month the charges were dropped, and now it’s as if the whole episode never happened. What it was all about?
LR: For me it was a very painful experience that the investigation of two pretty simple cases took so long. Apart from our testimony as the accused [Rehák was arrested along with his sons Martin and Juraj and Bratislava attorney Ernest Valko – ed. note], and 12 witness statements, there was nothing else in the case file that they needed to concern themselves with. So, one-and-a-half years to collate and evaluate this material seem excessive to me. This shadow hung over us for 18 months, and still hangs over us, because the public sees it this way – ‘sure, they got the charges dropped, but in Slovakia you can arrange anything’. The fact that it took so long means that in some sense, the case was never really settled. And it’s still not over – my son is still charged [with extortion], and his case is going to court.
From my point of view the whole thing served the interests of the people who wanted to take our money, and who had good contacts among the police. How is it possible that on the basis of a trivial accusation from an accountant who had stolen our money, they arrested us, charged us with extortion and threatened us with life in jail, and on the other hand to this day have not charged the accountant? It’s not as if the police lack evidence to lay such charges, either. In the second case, at first the police did nothing for half a year, and then started to act [against the Vittek brothers] after we were released from custody.

SPEX: In both cases, your accusers said you used force to get them to admit they owed you money. Why didn’t you go to the police earlier, if these people had really taken your money?
LR: We did lay charges – against the Vitteks before we were arrested, and against Kladníková right afterwards. The police started to act about a week after we found that Kladníková had stolen our money [the Rehák family claims the damages came to Sk6 million – ed. note]. We met with her and demanded that she return the money. We signed a notarized statement to the effect that the debt existed, and she said she would give the money back within a week.

SPEX: But in both cases the charges were laid after you tried on your own to resolve the situation. Why didn’t you just call the police right away and avoid the risk?
LR: Because I expected that given that they had taken the money from me, they would give it back. I was just trying to give them a chance. I made it very clear to them that if they didn’t give me the money back, I would lay charges. The police later classified this as a threat issued against them. The principle was the same in both cases, with one difference, that I had the law office of Dr. Ernest Valko draw up an analysis of the Vittek case, on the basis of which we judged that they had committed fraud. We met with the Vitteks, we advised them of the situation, we wrote a notarized statement in which they admitted the debt, and we agreed to give them time to pay it back until the end of September. But that same evening, they returned to the notary’s office and tried to steal the statement, for which act separate charges have been filed against them. Then we discovered that they were trying to get rid of their property, writing it in other people’s names. We immediately laid charges and started the process of seizing their property.

SPEX: Your explanation seems logical and sounds like something that could happen to any businessman, with one small exception – the role in the case played by Róbert Janeček, who is regarded as a member of the Piťo organized crime group from Lamač. How did he get involved?
LR: That was a coincidence, because he is a friend of my son. Janeček was there completely by chance, along with a second guy named Zdichavský, and a third who works for me, and who drove my son home.

SPEX: The police claim that they physically assaulted Kladníková. Were you present for that?
LR: No. Present at the meeting in my office were my two sons, our economic director Mr. Vajcík, and myself. My son Martin went with Kladníková to the public notary. She went there of her own free will, and testified that at the notary’s office, no one put any pressure on her.

SPEX: Do you know Juraj Ondrejčák, a.k.a. Piťo?
LR: Yes.

SPEX: What is the nature of your relationship?
LR: He is a friend of my son’s.

SPEX: Did any of the Piťo gang ever work for you or perform any service for you?
LR: No. We never did any business together, nor did we lend them any money. For a long time he lived on our street, three doors up.

SPEX: When you get into big business and start sponsoring a political party, isn’t it time to start thinking about who you are associating with?
LR: Those are separate things. I didn’t mean to say that the fact Martin is friends with them means that he does business with them as well. Those are people who have a completely different educational background than Martin, and completely different ideas about life.

SPEX: But I was more referring to you. Given your business and other interests, wouldn’t it have been a good idea to forbid Martin to hang around with Piťo gang members?
LR: I did. On innumerable occasions.

SPEX: And what was the answer?
LR: He said that they were his friends, that this is what they’re like, but that he had nothing else to do with them beyond friendship. They’ve known each other since they were 15 years old. You know what it’s like with guys. Even though I may have had some bad friends, I was never able to break the connection. You can’t escape your friends.

SPEX: What does Martin get out of their friendship? Why does he feel the need to hang around with them?
LR: Tough to say. They’re a bunch of boys who grew up in a neighborhood together and who have known each other since their school days. I also have five friends I met in primary school who have done completely different things with their lives than I have. One of them drank himself to death, poor guy, the second is a computer engineer in Vienna, the third is the director of the Slovak Academy of Sciences, the fourth has a pub in the city, and the fifth specializes in treating allergies. We meet regularly, but we have no other ties than friendship.

SPEX: But in the list you just read out, there is no one who has been charged with a serious crime, and no one who promotes fascism.
LR: That’s true. But on the other hand it has to be pointed out that these are not my son’s only friends.

SPEX: What is the nature of your relationship with Zdenko Zubčák Sr.?
LR: We worked together in the Technopol company, we’ve known each other for 30 years.

SPEX: Is it just a coincidence that his two sons are also regarded by police as members of the Piťo gang?
LR: After the 1989 revolution, Mr. Zubčák lived his own life and ran his own business. Our kids know each other, they grew up together. I can’t comment on why they are also on the list.

SPEX: The lawyer you chose to represent you, Ondrej Mulárčík, according to the business register is a manager of the Oximag firm with people that police regard as members of the Sýkora crime group.
LR: Yes.

SPEX: Another coincidence?
LR: I can’t comment on what firms Dr. Mulárčík is in. At the time when I was deciding whether or not he would represent me, some of my acquaintances came to me with this information, and asked me if it didn’t bother me. I spoke to him about it, and he told me that it wasn’t important. I was more alerted to the fact that the Piťo gang and the Sýkora gang were at odds, and if there wasn’t some cause to worry. We concluded that there wasn’t.

SPEX: I see in front of me an experienced man – the former chairman of the board of the largest mobile operator in Slovakia, the main sponsor of the Christian Democrats, a former agent for the ŠtB Communist secret service who lived in Switzerland. How could such an experienced man have been so careless about his personal ties?
LR: Of course, the fact that I know Ondrejčák because we lived on the same street could hurt me, but there’s nothing I can do about it. And there’s absolutely nothing I can do about the fact that my name appears in the Cibulka lists [of people who worked for the ŠtB – ed. note]. But I don’t have any problem with the fact I appear there, because I never hurt anyone. I signed a collaboration agreement [with the ŠtB] voluntarily, and I never denied it or tried to hide it. I just wanted to get ahead, I wanted a good job, I wanted to travel and to work abroad. And that’s it. And even though I sponsored a political party, I never wanted to have a career in the party, because unlike other former agents who forced their way into positions in parties, I realized I could hurt the party by doing so.
Personally, I think that someone who knew very well what they were about advised Kladníková on how to write her criminal complaint. And the people who received that complaint knew in advance what they wanted to do with it. It has nothing to do with the fact I was in the Cibulka lists or that I know Ondrejčák. It was an artificial construct that served someone’s purpose.

SPEX: Can you be more specific?
LR: She knew a few people with the police, a fact that is documented in her testimony. She also knew a few people from the criminal underworld.

SPEX: What do you think of the work of the police in your case?
LR: The police tried to justify their approach, but I can’t say they did a good job, because it affected me and my business very negatively. Their actions were within the law, and I tolerated them, but their approach was highly unusual.

SPEX: Would your answer be tougher if your son’s case wasn’t going to court?
LR: (pause) That’s not a fair question.

SPEX: Between 2001 and 2003 you were the largest individual sponsor of the Christian Democrats. Why?
LR: At the time the KDH had people in its leadership that I agreed with. I also found the ideas they pursued attractive.

SPEX: As a businessman you must be accustomed to weighing investments in terms of the returns you can expect. Did you profit in any way from sponsoring a party that was then part of the ruling coalition?
LR: No, never.

SPEX: The Slovak public believes that political sponsors expect something after elections in return for their support.
LR: Because that’s how it works. But that’s short-sighted.

SPEX: So in your case it didn’t work that way?
LR: No. When [then-PM Mikuláš] Dzurinda left the KDH, the party found itself without money. The leaders turned to their supporters and asked them for funds. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to just toss them a few hundred thousand crowns, but I forced the KDH to introduce a system by which if they took money from a concrete individual, they recorded and published his name.

SPEX: You financed the Týždeň weekly, which dug into several scandals that were painful for the current government. Do you think your treatment at the hands of the police was a form of retribution for your sponsorship activities?
LR: No. No, no. Týždeň dug into scandals that embarrassed the previous government as well. That’s the magazine’s mission. Our arrest and the ensuing scandal was handled very badly initially by the police, who dubbed the operation Svätuškár [Holy Roller, a reference to Rehák’s Christian Democrat ties – ed. note]. This gave easy ammunition to any politician who wanted to take it further. But none did, with the exception of Prime Minister Fico and his unfortunate statement that the next few days would prove interesting. But I put this down to his inexperience as a politician, because the same thing happened in the scandal surrounding Hedviga [Malinová, a Hungarian student who was allegedly beaten up in 2006 by Slovak extremists, and in which politicians intervened – ed. note].

SPEX: So why did you sell your stake in Týždeň?
LR: [Editor-in-chief] Štefan Hríb is a very good journalist, and has the ability to express what he feels very clearly. As a journalist he doesn’t let anyone tell him what he should write about and how he should write it. Every journalist should be that way. But then let such journalists write on their own dime. Týždeň was not a political project but a commercial one. I was the majority owner, and I had certain ideas about how the weekly should develop. After a while it became clear that the content of the weekly was standing in the way of further growth. When we talked about it with Štefan, he wasn’t prepared to accept any changes. In the end we found a new partner, [former Health Minister] Rudolf Zajac, who bought my shares.

SPEX: After you were arrested, you suspended your tenure as chairman of the board at the Orange mobile operator. Even though you no longer have shares in the company, the board has re-elected you its deputy chairman. Was this an expression of support?
LR: Yes.

SPEX: Have the events of the last 18 months hurt your business interests?
LR: Yes. Yes.

SPEX: Do you plan to seek compensation?
LR: We’ll see when it’s all over. I probably should demand compensation. But it would be enough for me if the president of the police corps apologized. If I had done to someone else what he did, I would apologize.

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