‘Armored Marian’ — the man who has Poland’s Law and Justice party in his sights

Former party loyalist Marian Banaś is now a thorn in the side of the government.

‘Armored Marian’ — the man who has Poland’s Law and Justice party in his sights

WARSAW — The biggest danger to Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party doesn’t comes from the hapless opposition parties.

Rather, it’s from Marian Banaś, a compact 65-year-old karate black belt who heads the Supreme Audit Office (NIK) and who has unleashed his inspectors against key government officials.

In response, the government-controlled anti-corruption police (CBA) is probing Banaś’s personal wealth after a building he owns was reportedly used as a brothel. Earlier this month, CBA agents conducted a raid on his son’s address.

Speaking to POLITICO, Banaś called the allegations as a “smear campaign” aimed at ousting him from his role as a watchdog of state bodies.

From a conference room behind two sets of locked doors at the stately NIK headquarters in Warsaw, he detailed how for more than two years he and his family have been spied on by around 50 anti-corruption agents. 

“This reminds me of Bolshevik methods,” he said, recalling the surveillance tools used by the communist secret police in the 1980s. Banaś, an activist in the anti-communist underground, was imprisoned in the early 1980s for his work with the Solidarity labor union.

Banaś’s role as one of the leading enemies of the government is something of a surprise both to him and to the party that nominated him to his six-year term as NIK chief in 2019. Long associated with the nationalist and conservative right, Banaś was once a tried-and-tested asset of PiS and first got top jobs during the party’s brief stint in power from 2005 to 2007, returning when PiS won power again in 2015.

He served as finance minister under Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki before moving to NIK — one of the country’s most powerful institutions that’s supposed to be used to keep an eye on public spending. However, Law and Justice has steadily eroded most checks and balances on its power, staffing top courts, control bodies and the state media with loyalists.

The problem for PiS is that Banaś refuses to play along.

Attacking the auditor

Immediately after his appointment, media reported that a building he owns in the southern city of Kraków was being used as a by-the-hour hotel run by a person with underworld links. Anti-corruption authorities launched a probe and Banaś went on a leave of absence.

At the same time, authorities uncovered a VAT fraud scheme being run out of the finance ministry, with one of the accused being a close associate of Banaś when he was the minister. The allegations tarnished the ruling party ahead of the 2019 parliamentary election.

In response, PiS tried to get Banaś to quit — with even party chief and Poland’s de facto ruler Jarosław Kaczyński putting pressure on him to go. Because the six-year-term of the NIK boss is written into the constitution, PiS mulled changing the rules to oust him.

But Banaś — whose nickname is ‘”armored Marian,” comparing him to a tank that steadily crushes all opposition in his way — dug in his heels and refused to quit.

“When I was chosen as head of NIK, I immediately became uncomfortable,” said Banaś. He said state services soon had him down as “even dangerous.”

Banaś denies any wrongdoing. “There are no legal proceedings against me … And that is the best proof that I am innocent, and that all this commotion … is a cunning PR move to destroy my profile and name.”

His predecessor, Krzysztof Kwiatkowski, a former Polish justice minister and chief prosecutor who is now an independent senator, said he is “surprised” that after almost three years of the investigation “dragging on,” it hasn’t led to either an indictment or to the case being dropped and that there is “no resolution in sight.”

“The issue gives the impression of seeking to influence the president [of NIK],” he said.

A spokesperson for Poland’s anti-corruption body (CBA) said that prosecutors were conducting “preparatory proceedings” in the case of how Banaś acquired earnings and property. The prosecutor’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Earlier this month, tensions escalated again when CBA agents staged a second raid on the chief auditor’s son, Jakub Banaś. His father called the search a “retaliation” for a smoking-gun audit of last year’s abandoned presidential vote.

Last year, the government tried to hold the election in May, despite worries about the pandemic. When it became clear that in-person voting would be too dangerous, the government decided to hold a postal-only vote. It spent millions on postal ballots, despite having passed no law to actually hold such an election. In the end, the election was shifted to July and the postal ballots were junked; so far no official has been held responsible for spending the money without authorization.

Last year a court in Warsaw ruled that Morawiecki committed “gross violation of the law” when ordering preparations for an all-postal vote before relevant legislation was passed by parliament.

NIK is now also weighing in. Leaked extracts of its report, which is due to be unveiled on Thursday, suggest that senior figures in government are to blame for wasting almost 133 million zloty (€29 million) on the canceled vote. 

The interior ministry, which oversees the CBA, denied any “political motivations” in raiding Banaś’s son just one day after leaks and said that the operation had already been in the works. 

“Incredible coincidence, don’t you think?” asked Banaś, who believes his family is being targeted to pressure him into resigning. “In my opinion, CBA has long ceased to be an institution which goes after corrupt officials. Increasingly, it has started taking part in show trials, with mixed results.”

Radosław Fogiel, a ruling party spokesperson, warned Banaś to “weigh his words,” while another called his accusations “simply untrue.”

Opposition politicians have cast the conflict as a power game within the ruling camp. Earlier this month, Cezary Tomczyk, the chairman of the parliamentary club of the Civic Coalition party, said the scrap was “a war of gangs” and “the activity of a mafia state.” 

More in the pipeline

Banaś has even more pain in store for PiS.

NIK is taking on the Polish National Foundation, a body tasked with promoting Poland abroad that is lavishly financed by state-controled companies; it has been criticized for squandering funds on ineffective and politically charged media campaigns.

When the foundation refused to hand over paperwork — claiming it is “a private entity” — NIK last month notified prosecutors of a potential crime of obstructing justice. “We cannot allow such an explanation … to hinder our audit work,” said Banaś. 

Kwiatkowski said the foundation’s refusal to cooperate is “absolutely unacceptable” and could set a “worrying” precedent for the audit office’s work.

NIK is also looking into the government’s handling of the pandemic, including how it spent over 150 billion złoty to bolster the economy during lockdowns.

Auditors plan to comb through the government’s post-pandemic National Recovery Plan for spending funds from the EU’s recovery fund, which Warsaw has submitted to Brussels.

“It seems that the most interesting topics are still ahead of us,” said Kwiatkowski, who noted that NIK is currently reviewing the €283 million outlay on what was supposed to be Poland’s last coal-fired power plant. Soaring carbon emissions prices and the reluctance of banks to lend for such a scheme forced its cancellation, and it’s now being disassembled.

“Already we can say that the money was being spent in an unreasonable way,” said Kwiatkowski. “The audit will now show who is responsible.” 

Banaś insists he’s not going away. “When it comes to our audit work, I haven’t said my last word yet.”


For more polling data from across Europe visit Poll of Polls.

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Sebastian Kurz’s political future in doubt amid perjury probe

If indicted and convicted, the chancellor could face up to three years in prison.

Sebastian Kurz’s political future in doubt amid perjury probe

The House of Kurz is on fire.

Sebastian Kurz’s position as Austrian leader was thrown into question on Wednesday after it emerged that prosecutors had opened a probe into whether the chancellor had lied to a parliamentary committee investigating allegations of corruption by members of his previous government.

Kurz denied any wrongdoing and expressed confidence that he would be exonerated.

Though Austria is no stranger to political scandal, no chancellor has ever faced a criminal investigation. If indicted and convicted, Kurz, 34, could face up to three years in prison. In Austria, witnesses appearing before a parliamentary tribunal face the same legal requirement to tell the truth as they would in court. 

Kurz said Wednesday that he had no intention of resigning. Nonetheless, if he is charged, a decision legal analysts say is likely in the coming weeks, the pressure on him to step down would be considerable. 

“A red line will have been crossed if there’s an indictment against the chancellor for perjury,” said Pamela Rendi-Wagner, leader of the opposition Social Democrats. “A serving chancellor under indictment and in court cannot carry out his duties and would have to face the consequences.” 

News of the probe sent shockwaves through the European political landscape, especially in Germany, where Kurz is regarded by many as a political star and a model for conservative politicians across the Continent. On Tuesday, Kurz was celebrated in Munich, where a German publisher awarded him a special media prize.  

At home, Kurz has had a rougher time of late. The criminal investigation is just the latest blow for the chancellor, whose center-right party has become mired in a far-reaching parliamentary probe into what Austrians have dubbed the “casinos affair.” At the core of the complicated inquiry is a suspected system of patronage and murky financial flows involving members of Kurz’s inner circle, his former coalition partner — the far-right Freedom Party — and Austrian casino operators. 

The criminal probe against Kurz, detailed in a 58-page document published by Austrian media on Wednesday, surrounds his government’s effort to install a close ally to run the country’s state holding company, known as ÖBAG. The government has parked government-owned stakes worth a total of €28 billion in several of the country’s biggest companies in ÖBAG.

During a parliamentary hearing last summer, Kurz was asked whether he had held discussions with a confidant, Thomas Schmid, about heading ÖBAG before the job was advertised. Kurz said he had not. 

Since then, however, a series of text message exchanges between Schmid, Kurz and others have come to light that indicate Kurz not only had discussed the job with Schmid, but also made sure that he got the post. 

Prosecutors are also looking at whether Kurz lied to the committee about his involvement in selecting board members for ÖBAG, which he also denied at the time.  

“I tried my utmost throughout to remember and to make truthful statements,” Kurz said on Wednesday of his testimony to the committee. 

Kurz isn’t the only high-profile conservative to face criminal investigation by corruption prosecutors. The others include Finance Minister Gernot Blümel, a close Kurz associate, ex-Finance Minister Hartwig Löger and former Justice Minister Wolfgang Brandstetter, who currently sits on Austria’s constitutional court. 

Authorities are also investigating a long list of second-tier officials in connection with the affair, including Kurz’s chief of staff, Bernhard Bonelli, who also faces allegations of perjury, and ÖBAG chief Schmid.  

The investigations are testing the stability of Austria’s democracy. That’s not only because the high-ranking government officials are at the center of the scandals, but also because they’ve taken steps to undermine the process. 

Even before he faced investigation himself, Kurz questioned the competence and motivations of the prosecutors’ office, criticism many in Austria’s legal community saw as an attack on the independent judiciary. 

The most flagrant break with democratic norms came from Blümel, the finance minister, who refused for weeks to comply with an order from the constitutional court to surrender emails and other communications to the parliamentary committee investigating the corruption allegations. He relented this week, but only after Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen ordered him to do so. 

On Wednesday, the constitutional court ordered Kurz to release a similar cache of communications. He signaled he would comply with the order after resisting the committee‘s request for months.

Kurz’s camp has sought to undermine the legitimacy of the committee itself and, by extension, the parliament. Kurz ally Wolfgang Sobotka, the president of the Austrian parliament, made the surprising proposal last month to lift a requirement that witnesses coming before the committee be compelled to tell the truth by penalty of the law.

The reason: “Everyone who comes to testify as a witness faces a deep fear that they’ll say something that’s not true.”  

Source : Politico EU More   

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