The head of SDOE (Financial and Economic Crime Unit) Stelios Stasinopoulos appeared before the Parliamentary Ethics and Transparency Committee today to inform MPs over the course of investigations regarding the Lagarde List.
The infamous list, named after the then French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde, was passed to Greek officials in 2010 in order to assist them in cracking down on large-scale tax evasion. The list that dates from 2007 includes the names of more than 2,000 wealthy Greek politicians, businessmen, shipping families and others who held secret bank accounts in the Geneva branch of HSBC allegedly to avoid paying large amounts in taxes to the Greek state.
However rather than triggering immediate widespread audits, the list was plunged into mystery and intrigue with the computer file of the spreadsheet supposedly being ‘mislaid’. The list was eventually published in 2012 by journalist Kostas Vaxevanis in protest over the government’s failure to act on it. He was subsequently prosecuted on charges of breaching privacy laws, but found not guilty by the courts.
Somewhat belatedly the Financial and Economic Unit are now proceeding with audits of some of the individuals on the list. However as Mr Stasinopoulos told the parliamentary committee today, progress has been slow. SDOE has only compiled files on 266 of the individuals and only 155 of these can be expected to reach a conclusion by the end of the month.
According to the official, the delay was due in part to the unit not having the required experience in the probing of bank accounts necessary to conduct the investigations. For this reason over the summer SDOE auditors attended training seminars meaning that investigations into the list were only able to begin in the autumn. Mr Stasinopoulos also said that given that the list only contains names it sometimes took several months for these to be cross-checked with tax authorities’ files.
Furthermore Mr Stasinopoulos said that SDOE was also wrestling with a number of competing demands. “SDOE has been called upon to keep up with current events. Suddenly social, political and financial issues arise. We have been called upon to audit a political party, subsidies and grants.” he told the committee.
Mr Stasinopoulos also suggested that given many of the individuals are “financially prominent individuals,” making charges of tax evasion stick could prove difficult.
“We can expect them to challenge our findings so we have to make sure that they are watertight,” he said.
The Role of George Papaconstantinou
Meanwhile in a related development over the weekend a council of judges ruled that former Finance Minister George Papaconstantinou should face charges over his alleged tampering with the Lagarde List.
Mr Papaconstantinou was the Finance Minister who received the initial list from the French Authorities in 2010 after which it was supposedly misplaced. Neither he nor his successor Evangelos Venizelos ordered investigations into the names on the list. On a version of the list on a USB stick that subsequently turned up, the names of four of Mr Papaconstantinou’s relatives had been removed.
In July 2013 Greek lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to send the former PASOK politician to trial on criminal charges of tampering with the list. However there was a question that the statute of limitations for the alleged crime had expired since Mr Papaconstantinou’s tenure. According to Greek law offenses allegedly committed by ex-ministers expire if two parliaments have sat since the offence.
However the judges, who convened at the supreme court on Saturday, ruled that since the Parliament formed by the first of two successive rounds of elections in the summer of 2012 sat for only a day, it could not be deemed to have operated normally and that therefore the statute of limitations on Mr Papaconstantinou’s alleged crime had not expired.
Mr Papaconstantinou rejects the allegations and his relatives on the list have denied evading taxes.