The 'Atimorisia' Illness: Greece's Toothless Battle against Corruption

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Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou is doing his best to ward off national bankruptcy. But not all government agencies are cooperating. The country's justice system refuses to file charges in hundreds of prominent corruption cases.

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The second the doorbell rings, the lights go off and the shades are drawn on the second floor of an apartment building on the outskirts of Athens. For the unwanted visitor, this is apparently meant to convey that no one is home. Since Nikos Kanellopoulos, 62, began appearing in the headlines, he is no longer available for comment.

Kanellopoulos is probably Greece's best-known public official at the moment. He was a civil servant for about 37 years, most recently as a department head in the Ministry of Culture. He went into retirement at the end of December 2008. He must have been very successful: According to the tax authorities, he now owns 10 properties, including the four-story apartment building containing his own, 126-square meter (1,356-square foot) apartment in the suburb of Nikaia.

Tax investigators also discovered 11 personal banking accounts with four different banks. The grand total of all deposits made into the 11 accounts amounted to the stately sum of €8,923,506.58 (over $12 million). Of this amount, more than €8 million went into the accounts during Kanellopoulos's last 10 years as a civil servant. The question is, where did the money come from?

The Kanellopoulos case is seen as a particularly drastic example of the Greek malaise. It is making headlines at the moment because it contrasts so sharply with Prime Minister George Papandreou's massive efforts to fend off the national bankruptcy that still threatens Greece.

Bloated Civil Service

In addition to completely revamping his country's financial policy, the prime minister has to reeducate an entire nation. Despite a number of general strikes, he has raised taxes, followed through with a radical austerity program and trimmed the bloated civil service.

The sweeping administrative reforms, a first for Greece, are called "Kallikratis." At the beginning of the year, the number of municipalities will be reduced from 1,074 to 325 and the number of regional administrations from 52 to 13. With so many levels of government, "corruption is almost the natural consequence," says Foreign Minister Dimitris Droutsas, noting that Kallikratis is one of the most important building blocks for a "new Greece." Greek voters appear to agree, handing Papandreou's socialists a victory in recent municipal elections, though their margin was much smaller than in national elections last October.

Of course, the Greek government could also milk the Kanellopoulos case for its propaganda value, by pointing out what appalling abuses it is clearing up. But is that really what is going on?

The general inspector of public administration, Leandros Rakintzis, brought the Kanellopoulos case to the public's attention. His job is to track down waste and corruption in the government bureaucracy. Although the chief watchdog did not name any names, he provided so many facts and details about the case that the retired civil servant was quickly exposed.

'Don't Want to Talk About It'

Kanellopoulos claims that he received the money as a government subsidy for a cultural association within his ministry, which pays for Christmas celebrations, summer parties and outings for ministry staff. He was briefly vice-president of the association twice, in 1996 and 1998. The only problem with his story is that he is unable to provide receipts, according to the report on an internal audit performed by the tax authorities, which SPIEGEL has obtained.

Kanellopoulos has avoided making public statements. "We don't want to talk about it," says his wife Athanasia. Nevertheless, he is unlikely to face serious consequences. That too is typically Greek.

The Kanellopoulos case involves a phenomenon that is popularly known as "Atimorisia" and could seriously jeopardize efforts to bring about much-needed change in Greece. "Atimorisia" means "impunity" or "getting off Scot free" in Greek. Next to "fakelaki," a term used to describe minor bribes, and "rousfeti," the word for special favors, this is the third expression emerging from the Greek crisis that is likely to find its way into the European vocabulary to describe mismanagement.

The problem is nothing new. For years, Greece's criminal justice system has been criticized for being slow and ineffective, losing files and allowing trials to drag on. According to General Inspector Rakintzis, the European Court of Justice has already ruled against Greece 340 times in cases related to this problem.

For years, there has also been an ongoing discussion of the substantial loopholes many Greek laws offer. In the Kanellopoulos case, for example, the tax authority reached the astounding conclusion that it could not demand payment of back taxes on his shockingly high income. Because the source of the funds "is not related to the exercise of his profession," the funds are "not subject to taxation, even if they were acquired in an illegal manner."

Special Treatment

What is new, however, is the charge -- recently made before a parliamentary committee by General Inspector Rakintzis -- that the judiciary systematically covers up corruption cases the minute they involve civil servants or public office holders. As a former judge with 38 years of experience, most recently as a member of the country's supreme court, the Areopag, Rakintzis speaks with authority.

He told the committee that even the public prosecutor's office often shows little interest in systematic prosecution. Besides, he added, there have been "verdicts that I cannot explain, even with my experience." What he was saying is that prominent figures are given special treatment.

Since taking office in 2004, Rakintzis has reported 427 cases of embezzlement, abuse of office, bribery and corruption to investigators. Shockingly, he says, his efforts have not led to the launching of a single investigation or the filing of charges -- even though public prosecutor's offices is required to do so. "The most likely explanation is that most of these cases are still in the preliminary investigation phase," Rakintzis says diplomatically.

His analysis has had even less of an impact internally. This summer, Rakintzis submitted a formal complaint to the chief public prosecutor attached to the country's supreme court, pointing out that there had been no movement whatsoever on any of the cases he had reported. The prosecutor reacted immediately, but not as expected. He gave Rakintzis a deadline by which he was to provide, in writing, additional, concrete details to back his charges, case-by-case. He did so a month later -- and added another 749 cases to the list. He has yet to receive a response.

"I am an honorary constitutional judge. I don't make any money on this," says Rakintzis, a short, rotund man who sees his job as a calling. "That's why I'm free to do as I please."

'The Big Patient'

Thus freed from constraints, he uncovers abuses and delivers his sharp criticism without regard to name or position. For instance, he discovered the now-legendary "Kopais" agency, which was created in 1957 to supervise the draining of Lake Kopais near Thebes. The lake disappeared that same year, but the agency and its staff of 30 still exist today. It has finally been placed on a list of 750 government agencies that are to be shut down. Now the only question is when?

About three years ago, Rakintzis discovered 32 doctors who worked at the largest hospital in Athens and had performed about 400 appendix, heart and eye operations -- at least according to what they had written in patient files. In reality, they had performed cosmetic surgery, which is not covered by insurance, and had sent the bills to the patients' health insurance agencies. "It was a gang," says Rakintzis, and it even had the audacity to place the cosmetic surgery at the top of their priority lists, while patients with serious conditions and emergency cases were kept waiting.

The case still hasn't seen the inside of a courtroom. "It often seems as if we had no judiciary," says former constitutional judge Rakintzis. The judiciary itself, he adds, is "the big patient."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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