Greek fury over 2,000 names on 'Swiss bank account' list

Editor arrested after magazine publishes names of Greeks said to have accounts in Geneva

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 October, 2012, 3:55am

The speaker of the Greek Parliament, several employees of the Finance Ministry and a number of business leaders are on a list of more than 2,000 Greeks said to have accounts in a Swiss bank, according to a respected investigative magazine.

The Greek magazine Hot Doc published the list this weekend, raising the stakes in a heated battle over which current and former government officials had seen the list, and whether they had acted on it.

Hot Doc published a list that it said matches the one that Christine Lagarde, then French finance minister and the current head of the International Monetary Fund, had given her Greek counterpart in 2010 to help Greece crack down on rampant tax evasion as it was trying to steady its economy.

The 2,059 people on the list are said to have had accounts in a Geneva branch of HSBC.

Questions about the handling of the list reached a near frenzy in the Greek capital of Athens as several former finance ministers were pressed to explain why the government appeared to have taken no action to investigate those on the list.

The subject has touched a nerve among average Greeks at a time when the Parliament is expected to vote on a new €13.5 billion (HK$135 billion) austerity package, which is likely to further reduce their standards of living.

The list's publication is likely to exacerbate Greeks' anger that their political leaders may have been reluctant to investigate the business elite, with whom they often have close ties, even as middle and lower-class Greeks struggle with higher taxes and increasingly zealous tax collectors.

The magazine was careful to note that having an account at HSBC was not illegal or proof of evading Greek taxes, a point underscored by a spokesman for the Greek finance ministry.

But the magazine suggested that Greek officials should use the list to check if those on it had moved money into the accounts to escape paying taxes.

Hours after the magazine hit newsstands, Athens prosecutors issued a warrant for the arrest of Kostas Vaxevanis, the owner and editor of Hot Doc.

He was arrested yesterday and will appear in court today. Athens police did not officially announce the charge against him, but Greek media reported that the charges were related to violating the privacy of those on the list.

Vaxevanis, one of Greece's most famous investigative journalists, said he has been wrongly targeted. "Instead of arresting the tax evaders and the ministers who had the list in their hands, they are trying to arrest the truth and free journalism," he said.

The list has shaken the country for weeks, posing new challenges to the fragile three-way coalition government of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras.

Above all, it has put intense pressure on the Socialist party, a key member of the coalition, whose leader, Evangelos Venizelos, is one of two Socialist former finance ministers accused of not having acted on the information.

The finger-pointing, likely to intensify with the list's publication, is certain to distract Greek politicians during a week when European finance ministers are scheduled to discuss whether to release billions of euros in fresh financial aid.

Greece's lenders have long said that the country must crack down on tax evasion to be eligible for further infusions of cash.

According to Hot Doc, the list includes not just government officials and businesspeople, but also actors, doctors, lawyers and architects. It also includes several women identified as housewives who, the magazine said, had moved large amounts of money to HSBC accounts.

Hot Doc The magazine said it had redacted how much money was said to be in each account, but added that some accounts had as much as €500 million. The list dates to 2007.