But much like previous cases this one is unlikely to end up having substance, says analyst.
Fico alleges Igor Matovič, leader of the Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OĽANO), avoided a tax audit by selling his Region Press company for the equivalent of about €4 million to one of his employees while keeping the company’s money on his personal account and later withdrawing from the contract. Since Fico informed about the case on February 5, both he and Matovič have repeatedly accused one another of lying.
Political analyst Grigorij Mesežnikov, president of the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO), sees the clash as a familiar part of Fico’s campaign strategy.
“The whole case was prepared to discredit a political rival,” Mesežnikov told The Slovak Spectator. Fico probably chose Matovič as target for previous clashes, he added.
Back in August 2015 Matovič made allegations that Fico and his wife had a fortune deposited in a bank account in the tax haven Belize. The allegations came after a raid was carried out in Matovič’s company in Trnava on August 12 by the National Crime Agency (NAKA). The police seized servers after the operation was ordered by the Special Prosecutor’s Office.
The police confirmed in October 2015 that Fico does not have a secret account in Belize.
Fico targets Matovič
In early February, Fico convened a press conference to publicly release documents that several experts have since said are subject to tax secrecy laws. Fico alleges the documents prove that Matovič has committed tax fraud in the past.
The case that Fico pointed to, however, is not completely new and Smer’s top regional politician in Trnava, Renáta Zmajkovičová, had used it against Matovič, who lives and had his business based in Trnava, in 2010.
Matovič sold his Region Press company to one of the company’s employees, Pavol Vandák, for 122 million Slovak crowns (about €4 million), in order to avoid a tax audit, according to Fico. He claims that on the day of the sale, 121 million crowns were transferred from the company’s account to Matovič’s personal account and the remaining 1 million was kept in the company in cash.
Vandák, who is self-employed and worked as a newspaper delivery man, “was practically Matovič’s employee”, as Fico put it. He allegedly bought the company one day before the planned tax audit in August 2008. Two months later, Matovič backed out of the contract, according to Fico.
The documents that Fico showed journalists to back his claims are photocopies of the contract between Vandák and Matovič and other documentation surrounding the sale. That includes the statement of Vandák in front of the tax authorities “where he confirms that the books of the company ended up in the paper waste”, Fico said.
The prime minister refuses to say where he obtained the documents. He only said during the political talk show broadcast by the private TA3 news channel on February 14 that he received it from a private person. He will reveal his or her name only after the matter is investigated.
Matovič meanwhile confirmed the documents Fico exposed were authentic but said he did not remember backing out of the contract two months after it was sealed. Despite that, he labelled Fico a liar.
Fico in turn labelled Matovič a liar too. Matovič lied when he said he did not remember whether he backed out of the deal, according to Fico.
Vandák speaks out
Meanwhile, the police started dealing with the case and by February 8 Vandák was called in to be heard as a witness. The police did not disclose information about the meeting but Vandák provided the records of his hearing to the SITA newswire.
Vandák did not discard the books of the company after he purchased it from Matovič, but Matovič did, he said.
He also claimed in front of the police that he only signed papers that Matovič presented to him, without knowing what he was actually signing. He said he trusted Matovič because they grew up together, SITA reported. Matovič allegedly promised Vandák a lifelong rent payment of €1,500.
“Pavol Vandák’s statement unfortunately contains a pile of nonsense, lies, and half-truths and I will, of course, react accordingly,” Matovič told SITA and added he was sorry that Vandák allowed himself to be “politically abused”.
Matovič talks with police
Matovič handed in more than 60 boxes of documents related to the Region Press company to NAKA on February 15. The documentation relates to 1997-2008 excluding the years 2002 and 2004.
The handover of the documents took place in the presence of Daniel Lipšic, who is his lawyer but also the leader of NOVA, which has members on the OĽaNO slate for the upcoming general election, the TASR newswire wrote.
Matovič claims that the boxes with documents are evidence that no tax fraud took place during the sale of Region Press.
A NAKA investigator collected the documents in front of Matovič’s grandmother’s house in Borová (Trnava Region) where they were being stored in the loft. As the house owners, Matovič’s family members wouldn’t allow him to enter the house, he agreed that the documents could be carried down and put in front of the building. Matovič and Lipšic were surprised that an investigator was collecting, packing and sealing whole boxes rather than individual documents. They claimed that the security of the delivered documentation is not guaranteed and that it could be manipulated, as reported by TASR. They also alleged there might be political influence on the investigation.
Police Corps President Tibor Gašpar however responded that the police are investigating the case in compliance with the Criminal Code, without being influenced from the outside.
“I’d like to respond to the lies and half-truths regarding the approach of the police in this case,” Gašpar said of his decision to make public statement, as quoted by TASR. He added that this will be the final police statement on the case prior to the March 5 general election.
Matovič was meanwhile invited to testify before police on February 17.
“I don’t have anything to hide; I’ve come to repeat it,” Matovič said, as quoted by TASR. “If you’re interested in my personal feelings, then I’m going there with a sentiment of someone standing against an absolute power play.”
He eventually spent four hours with the police investigator.
“As for the course of the questioning, I think that it was carried out appropriately by both the investigator and the prosecutor present,” Matovič said after the hearing, as quoted by TASR. “It was an 11-page testimony. I didn’t say anything new apart from what already had been said in the media.”
Mesežnikov compares the case with the campaign led by Fico before the 2014 presidential elections against his rival Andrej Kiska. He kept accusing him of usury, referred to some controversial cases and even searched for some victims.
“It seemed like an intelligence operation,” he said.
The accusations however have not resulted in any criminal investigation, and this is likely to happen also with the allegations against Matovič, Mesežnikov added.
He also does not think that the suspicions will have any significant impact on the voters’ support of OĽaNO. People who still support Matovič despite various scandals he has been connected to will remain loyal to him, Mesežnikov suggests.
Sociologist Pavel Haulík of MVK polling agency even predicts that the case may, paradoxically, increase the support for OĽaNO movement.
“A Slovak voter does not perceive the arguments brought by similar conflicts as relevant,” Haulík told The Slovak Spectator.
22. Feb 2016 at 5:30 | Radka Minarechová