Former defence ministry official in Greece turns graft supergrass
Former defence ministry official in bailed-out Greece admits pocketing more than €10m from kickbacks - and promises to name more culprits
A probe into long-forgotten defence contracts has given authorities in bailed-out Greece a small financial victory, along with the promise of revelations into decade-old corruption.
More than €9 million (HK$95 million) has been handed over to the state by Antonis Kantas, a former defence ministry official turned state witness.
Kantas, 72, was a deputy procurement director at the defence ministry from 1997 to 2002.
He has admitted pocketing over €10 million from kickbacks related to the purchase of submarines, rockets, fighter aircraft and tanks. "I took so many bribes that I cannot remember them all," Kantas said in his testimony, according to reports. Kantas served under socialist defence minister Akis Tsochatzopoulos, 73, who was jailed in October for money laundering. That 20-year sentence loosened tongues after years of silence.
Kantas was originally arrested in September, but began pouring out his testimony last week.
He has since named about a dozen other suspects, most of them businessmen and weapons intermediaries.
But justice officials are hoping to net bigger fish among the Greek political elite.
"We are determined. Any hint of corruption will be investigated to the end," government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou said.
A decade earlier, a parliamentary committee found insufficient evidence to indict Tsochatzopoulos over the suspect purchase of Russian anti-aircraft missiles.
Kedikoglou was a member of that committee, and said on Friday that lawmakers at the time were frustrated by the lack of evidence against the ex-minister.
"It was an awful feeling, to understand that something is wrong but to not be able to prove it," Kedikoglou said. "We had very little access to documents. We had very little evidence," he said.
And a justice source said last week: "There are hundreds of millions of euros and dollars from procurement programmes spread out in accounts around the world.
"It takes time to open these accounts because intermediaries and offshore companies are involved. Politicians are behind such cases and witnesses are covering up for them."
But the investigation still faces major hurdles. One of the new suspects named by Kantas is an 83-year-old ailing businessman who nearly collapsed during testimony.
Another suspect claims to be suffering from amnesia.
The case has dominated headlines in a country suffering from four years of straight austerity cuts and is trying to recover from a six-year recession.
This particular case occurred at a time when Greece was spending millions of euros on weapons in a costly arms race with neighbouring Turkey.
To placate public anger, the finance ministry said last week the money returned by Kantas would be diverted to health and education, which have sustained big budget cuts in recent years.
But many in the country doubt that endemic corruption in public office will be eradicated as a result of the investigation.
Also this week, the chairman of Greece's main children's hospital was arrested after he was taped allegedly accepting a €25,000 bribe.
"Did the bribe tsunami described by Kantas cease after his departure? Or is it still ongoing?" the main opposition party Syriza asked. The case is bad news for the conservative-socialist coalition government ahead of local elections in May.
The conservatives and socialists have ruled Greece for the past 40 years and are considered responsible for its financial and corruption ills.