THE RELATIONSHIP between Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) leader Richard Sulík and businessman Marián Kočner came under renewed scrutiny in late February as the election campaign moved into its final two weeks. It emerged that Sulík not only kept Kočner, who has no official or party position but whose name has surfaced in various controversies over the past two decades, informed about the tortuous process of choosing a new general prosecutor at the time Sulík was serving as speaker of parliament in late 2010, but also had him ‘screen’ some of Sulík’s own SaS candidates before the 2010 election.
Kočner revealed his wider role at a press conference that he called on February 28 to accuse Sulík of lying about the nature of the pair’s political ties. These were first revealed by the so-called Sasanka file – comprising transcripts of alleged SMS text messages exchanged between Sulík and Kočner in 2010 – and later by seven short videos featuring Kočner and Sulík that were covertly recorded at Kočner’s home. Kočner said that the pair’s meetings were more frequent than the SaS boss had previously admitted.
SaS responded by threatening to sue Kočner. It described his press briefing as “a confirmation of dirty attacks on SaS”.
“Kočner was pouring buckets of dirt on SaS and its members without providing any evidence,” Sulík said, adding that Kočner based all his claims – as he himself admitted at the press conference – only on his ‘feelings and assumptions’.
The information revealed by the Sasanka file (Sulík admits that he exchanged texts with Kočner in 2010, but says he cannot confirm their exact content) and that disseminated by Kočner has provoked some negative responses within SaS. However the party leadership said that it still supports Sulík, despite an offer by him to withdraw from his position as party election leader.
The SaS boss said that if in the parliamentary elections he does not gain the most preferential votes of all SaS candidates he will give up his seat in parliament.
Sulík has repeatedly stated that it was a mistake for him to meet Kočner.
The secret recordings
“Dear [SaS] deputies, you would be surprised what I know about you,” Kočner told journalists. He went on to say he had begun meeting Sulík before the 2010 parliamentary elections rather than only after the vote, as had previously been reported.
Meanwhile, Sulík apologised to the chairman of the SaS parliamentary caucus, MP Jozef Kollár, who was among those he asked Kočner to vet. Sulík allegedly got Kočner, who claimed to be on friendly terms with former general prosecutor Dobroslav Trnka, to check whether Kollár, a former banker, was under criminal investigation. Sulík told Sme that the enquiry consisted of a single question – whether there was any question of a criminal prosecution – and that Kočner had told him there was not.
“Mistakes happen,” Kollár responded, as quoted by the SITA newswire. “It was clearly Sulík’s mistake, though it speaks to his credit that he has admitted it.”
Kočner said on February 28 that he would like to ask Kollár whether he is willing to undertake a lie-detector test and answer questions pertaining to what he called ‘a Sk80 million robbery at Ľudová Banka’, where Kollár served as general director.
Kollár denied having any link to a 1997 bank robbery in which three Italians stole Sk52 million, adding, as quoted by Sme, that Kočner should at least have got his numbers right.
According to Sme, Sulík also asked for information about SaS member Ľudovít Jurčík, but uncovered no compromising information.
Finding ‘the traitors’?
Sulík said that he maintained contacts with Kočner to find out the identity of those he termed ‘the traitors’ – i.e. the coalition MPs who cast their votes to reselect the incumbent, Dobroslav Trnka, as general prosecutor during a secret ballot in parliament in December 2010, despite a coalition agreement not to vote for him and a threat by Prime Minister Iveta Radičová to resign if Trnka were elected.
“The only thing I wanted to do was to find out who the traitors are in the coalition,” he added, as quoted by the TASR newswire. “I tried to get this information but it turned out that I would not have been a good spy. Instead, I became part of the fabricated story.” He did not explain how Kočner, who is not an MP and therefore was not in the parliamentary chamber for the secret vote, could have known who voted for Trnka.
On the recordings Sulík is heard saying that deputies were offered €300,000 to vote for Trnka.
“He was checking with me not who the traitors were but rather what I knew about it,” Kočner said at his press conference, which was carried live by the TA3 TV news channel, adding that the SaS boss perhaps wanted to warn them.
Following the February 28 revelations, Sulík visited the police’s Office for the Fight Against Corruption where he provided testimony about alleged vote-buying among MPs during the December 2010 vote, SITA reported.
Changing the prime minister?
One of the covertly recorded videos of Kočner and Sulík features the latter saying that he is prepared to support a government headed by Ivan Mikloš, the current finance minister and deputy chairman of the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) party. Sulík explains that Radičová frequently changes her position on issues, and refers to her change in attitude towards an increase in the value added tax.
Radičová said on February 27 that she had made a mistake by being completely open in her communication with Sulík. She also commented that at the ruling coalition meeting where the eventual VAT increase was discussed Sulík was not even present, adding that it was SaS representatives who changed their positions, SITA reported.
Radičová and Sulík were referring to the debate over a Mikloš proposal to unify the VAT rate, which the ruling coalition intended to dub ‘Fico’s tax’, and which all the ruling coalition parties except SaS agreed to. Ultimately, the regular VAT rate was increased, from January 2011, but lower rates were retained for goods like medicines and books.
On February 28, the prime minister’s chief advisor Marián Balázs called on Sulík to resign from the SaS candidate list.
“The fact that Richard Sulík as speaker of parliament was informing an influential businessman and a person from the mafia files [a leaked list of persons of interest to the police in relation to organised crime] about the course of the general prosecutor election as well as the fact that despite repeatedly publicly saying that he and his party were standing behind Iveta Radičová, he was saying to Kočner that he was ready to agree to her replacement, are two sufficient reasons for him to withdraw from the candidate list as well as consider his further presence in politics,” Balázs wrote in a statement sent to the media.
Sulík insisted on several occasions that his party was firmly behind the prime minister and even that it was providing her with more support than she was getting from her own party, the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ).
The Sasanka file was published anonymously on the internet in the run-up to the parliamentary elections in Slovakia a little more than a month after the so-called Gorilla file appeared. The latter features purported transcripts from bugged conversations that imply high-level political corruption in 2005-6. Both documents were posted on the same foreign website and the content of both seems likely to have originated with one or more of Slovakia’s various intelligence services.
Sulík expressed regret for his meetings with Kočner, while also saying that the videos were shot illegally.
“It was a private conversation in the home of Mr Kočner and this video was made illegally and without my knowledge,” Sulík said, as quoted by SITA.
Kočner alleged that the videos were covertly recorded but denied knowing about them. He suggested that the device could have been planted in his home. The Slovak intelligence services have said that they did not conduct any operation in Kočner’s house, while the businessman said he would find out more details in return for a payment.
Kočner also claimed, while admitting that he did not have any evidence to back up his statements, that SaS received around Sk5 million – i.e. approximately €165,000 – in a plastic Tesco bag from Penta co-owner Jozef Špirko for the 2010 election campaign. Both Sulík and Špirko denied the claim.
Kočner’s name first surfaced in the media in the mid 1990s, when he was suspected of fraud in connection with the Technopol case, along with the son of then-president Michal Kováč. Following the 1995 abduction of Michal Kováč Jr to Austria all parties involved in the Technopol case were amnestied.
Kočner is a former classmate of Pavol Rusko, the former head of TV Markíza and a one-time economy minister. In 1998 Kočner led what was dubbed a siege of the TV Markíza building that led to wholesale changes in the management of the station, the Sme daily reported.