When Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák finally stood in front of journalists to explain his connections with businessman Ladislav Bašternák, who faces accusations of tax fraud, he appeared different than he normally is. A man nicknamed the “handsome fixer” who has been always confident when dealing with media was nervous and hesitant.
“It is fact that I know Mr Bašternák and it is a fact that I haven’t seen him for years,” Kaliňák said during the June 13 press conference.
The assistant of opposition MP Jozef Rajtár of Freedom and Solidarity (SaS), Filip Rybanič, took documents from the Tatra Banka bank which show that €260,000 arrived to Kaliňák’s account from the B.A. Haus company, a firm operated by tycoon Ladislav Bašternák until October 2013. Similar payments arrived also to account of former transport minister Ján Počiatek who left politics in mid April.
Documents leaked only few days after opposition parties tried to remove Kaliňák from his post claiming that his employees at the ministry were not seriously investigating the Bašternák case.
The case pertains to the excessive VAT refunds granted to businessman Ladislav Bašternák’s firm BL-202 which bought and sold seven apartments in the Five Star Residence complex built by tycoon Marián Kočner. Bašternák reportedly bought them for €12 million. The company then applied for a VAT refund of €2 million and the state paid it out, despite suspicions that the transaction was fictitious. The state later paid an additional €6 million in VAT refunds and saw no reason to verify them.
The opposition now again demands Kaliňák recall saying that it will organise protests against government if it will not happen.
“It is possible [that he will stay in the seat] but consequences will be for Smer devastating,” Grigorij Mesežnikov, president of the Institute for Public Affairs told the Sme. “This cause feeds opposition with such amount of material that it can constantly criticise his work.”
Loopholes in explanation
After three months of denying any connection with Bašternák, Interior Minister Kaliňák admitted trading with him, although only as one-time purchase of a share in the businessman’s B. A. Haus company in 2013.
The money coming from B.A. Haus to Kaliňák’s account was marked as payments towards the loan. Opposition parties say that it could be cover for a bribe from Bašternák for not investigating the tax case.
Kaliňák explained that money differently. He claims that Bašternák, when he was shareholder in the firm, lent money to the B.A. Haus. When Bašternák sold his share to Kaliňák and former Transport Minister Ján Počiatek they also took on the debt. Therefore B.A. Haus owed money to Kaliňák and Počiatek.
Payments towards the loan amounting €260,000 which Kaliňák received from B.A. Haus covered this debt.
This claim however is not supported by accounting records of the firm because when shareholders lend money to their firm it has to be recorded as debt towards a shareholder. There is no such record in 2013 accounting record. It could be however the mistake of accountant, the Sme daily wrote.
This was Kaliňák’s main argument during his press conference aimed at convincing public together with bank statements. After convincing coalition partners at coalition council with same documents Kaliňák’s stated that he deems the scandal resolved.
However, he failed to clarify why has not come up with these explanations at the very beginning of the case, Sme wrote.
Coalition parties Smer, the Slovak National Party (SNS), Most-Híd and Sieť fully trust Kaliňák, said Prime Minister Robert Fico after a three-hour session of the coalition council on June 13.
“The interior minister has submitted documents that disprove allegations made by the opposition,” Fico told the press. “Kaliňák has informed the council that he will present these documents to the media and public today.”
Fico expects the investigating authorities to examine the extent of tax fraud in the so-called Bašternák case - with which the opposition has linked Kaliňák - thoroughly and as quickly as possible. They should inform the public about the process as well as the results of the investigation.
On the other hand, if Prime Minister Robert Fico does not dismiss Interior Minister, he will face a parliamentary no-confidence motion himself in the very first week of Slovakia’s Presidency of the EU Council which starts in July, Opposition OĽaNO-NOVA chairman Igor Matovič announced at a press conference on June 14.
The OĽaNO-NOVA chief believes that there are too many coincidences in the case.
“Počiatek bought a stake from Bašternák, who was then allowed to commit tax fraud without punishment. An accident? Oh, sure,” Matovič told the press. “When Bašternák's fraud was discovered, Kaliňák bought a stake from him and swept everything under the rug. An accident? Oh, sure.”
Kaliňák refuses to resign despite recently emphasizing the ethics of his party.
“Those were cases when we [Smer] demanded political responsibility because not every cause is criminal act but it is so much politically unacceptable that person has to leave,” Kaliňák said for Hospodárske noviny daily in early June.
It is not surprising that Smer does not want to recall Kaliňák because if it wanted to do so it would happened immediately after story broke out while referring on political culture. The party will wait for reactions of voters and reconsider the position of Kaliňák in the party, according sociologist Martin Slosiarik.
“It is difficult to recall person with such a high position,” Slosiarik told Sme. “Kaliňák has been seen as prince of Smer and he was considered to be successor of Robert Fico.”
Patriot or villain
Another aspect of this cause is fate of whistleblower Rybanič who may have conflicting motivations for his actions. While opposition depicts him as patriot who broke a law to serve the public, some coalition politicians warn that it could encourage others to violate rules.
After police learned that Rybanič leaked documents he was later arrested and charged with violating bank secrecy but he has not been detained. He now faces from three to eight years behind the bars.
Globally, it is not the first case of bank documents leak to point on fraud. Some states have awarding system for such people even it is clear that they violated the law. It is not even important whether he is connected to political party or not, according to lawyer Pavel Nechala who cooperates with Transparency International Slovakia.
It is however difficult to say how Slovak courts will deal with this case. It is possible that it will end at European Court of Human Rights or President Andrej Kiska will pardon him. No matter what, Rybanič will have to prove that his information were valuable and that he used all lawful ways to point on the transactions, Nechala added.
On the other hand, air-play Alliance’s Zuzana Wienk claims that whistleblower should be independent person and does not enter political competition.
“If he will join ranks of whistleblowers it could harm this whole category of important and brave social activity,” Wienk wrote on Facebook. “We should have more responsible social debate about this case.”