Opinion

Do FIFA Arrests Presage Further Investigations In Europe?

Gary Berntsen President, The Berntsen Group

U.S. and Swiss white-collar crime investigators grabbed world headlines this week by announcing the indictments of FIFA officials on charges of bribery and money laundering. There may be far more important cases that merit U.S. law enforcement attention, however: allegations of public corruption, which, if true, could so undermine public confidence as to threaten democratic governance itself. In the Czech Republic, there may even be one with a sports connection.

A recent article in Foreign Policy magazine asked whether the Czech Republic has an oligarch problem, pointing out the enormous wealth and political control amassed by the Finance Minister (and Deputy Prime Minister), Andrej Babis. Since gaining power, Babis has been accused of using his government position to enrich his private interests. His party voted in May 2015 to maintain the generous subsidies for biofuels, the chief beneficiary of which is his 100 percent-owned company, Agrofert, provoking a no-confidence vote in the parliament.

Among other things, the article charged that Babis was affiliated with the KGB, and that his father was involved in black market arms sales, when he was a senior executive at Petrimex, a Czechoslovak state-owned chemical company. Among other projects during that time, Babis was responsible for a trade of arms for phosphates from Syria and African countries, according to Czech media. He later left Petrimex by taking control of a spinoff company, Agrofert, which now dominates the Czech agricultural and petrochemical industry (the Agrofert tennis club, chaired by Miroslav Cernosek, is a known gathering place for prominent Czechs). There was a report in November 2014 of an intercepted arms shipment to ISIS from the Czech Republic; to date there has been no reported investigation of the matter.  Why has the Czech government shown no interest in following this case?

There is mystery surrounding the source of the financing for Babis’ original takeover of Agrofert: we know only that it was owned by a Swiss company, OFI, that was headquartered in a small town known chiefly for another resident, Marc Rich. Whose money financed his original takeover of Agrofert, when he was just an executive with Petrimex? In 2001, OFI sold a 55 percent stake to Ameropa, another obscure Swiss company. Ameropa buys and sells chemicals in Russia, Eastern Europe and Latin America. Since Babis is the official in charge of the public treasury, and this company benefits from public subsidies, shouldn’t there be full transparency in Agrofert’s cash flows? Who were the original investors in those Swiss companies, and what is the return on their investments? Are billions of dollars are being moved from state coffers to private bank accounts in banking havens in Luxembourg and Switzerland? Where is all the money going that Czech consumers are paying to subsidize biofuels? Is there a money trail here that a prosecutor should follow?

Babis also has been accused of surrounding himself with police and prosecutors, and of using them to attack political and commercial enemies. Several political upheavals and policy battles in recent years have been punctuated by unusual police and prosecutorial activity. Are these tied to Babis in any way? For example, in June 2013, the Czech government was brought down in a strange maneuver by the organized crime unit of the police, headed by Robert Slachta, who staged a spectacular raid on the offices of the prime minister and people connected closely to him. As a result snap elections were held that brought Andrej Babis to power. On May 29th of this year, those charges were dismissed by the court as baseless.

Other government and commercial entities have received the attentions of Slachta and Bradacova, allegedly motivated by commercial and political interests. They have staged repeated raids on the office of the independent energy regulator, the ERU, who has stood up for transparency in energy pricing, and resisted market-altering subsidies. Most recently, Zeman’s close ally Jan Mladek, the Minister of Trade and Industry, succeeded in ramming a poorly conceived amendment to the energy law through the parliament. The only real outcome of the amendment was to destroy the independence of the energy regulatory office, just months before a new tender for nuclear power plants is due from the Czech government: a tender in which RosAtom has a keen interest.

In 2014, Babis’ Finance Ministry tried to nationalize Unipetrol’s refinery, at a time when Babis’ company had an outstanding lawsuit against the company for one billion U.S. dollars. Nationalizing a company — bringing it under the control of his finance ministry — with a billion-dollar liability from a lawsuit initiated by his company, Agrofert, would have had the appearance of a conflict of interest.

An ironclad rule of investment is that an investor expects a return. What did these opaque Swiss entities (OFI and Ameropa) expect for investing in Agrofert? Where is the money from the Czech treasury through Agrofert ultimately ending up? Since Ameropa is active in Russia, are there potential security risks to NATO interests? It is conceivable even that there are money flows ultimately tied to terrorist organizations, given the arms shipment to ISIS. This certainly merits investigation: the stakes are higher than corruption in a sports league.