Rich Greek Economy Minister, Wife Quit Over Rent Subsidy Outrage

FILE - Greek Economy Minister Dimitri Papadimitriou. Photo: Eurokinissi/Giorgos Kontarinis

ATHENS – They were wealthy professors with status in New York, leaving to join the Cabinet of the Radical Left SYRIZA-led coalition in Greece, but Economy Minister Dimitris Papadimitriou and his wife, also a minister, resigned after reports she got a 1,000-euro ($1233) monthly rent subsidy in Athens’ poshest neighborhood.

The furor began with a newspaper report that Alternate Minister for Social Solidarity Rania Antonopoulou, overseeing unemployment programs and those for the country’s vulnerable, received 23,000 euros over a near two-period period, which she said was legal after the government, shortly after taking office, approved generous rent subsidies for lawmakers and its ministers.

Papadimitriou, who was President of the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College, was a key figure in Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ hopes of luring foreign investors scared off by a crushing economic and austerity crisis, high taxes and political volatility.

His wife was an Associate Professor for Economics at Bard College and a senior scholar at the economics institute he oversaw.

She is a heterodox economist, a school of thought outside mainstream economics, in line with SYRIZA policies before Tsipras reneged on anti-austerity promises and poured more taxes on Greeks while failing to follow through on vows to “Crush the oligarchy,” tax the rich and hunt down tax cheats.

While the subsidy was legal, after SYRIZA changed a law that allowed only Members of Parliament to have four nights a week stay at a hotel chosen by the Parliament paid for if their homes were too far for commuting, rivals immediately seized on the symbol of a the government’s richest couple taking public money to pay for a luxury apartment when they have vast holdings and a villa on the Greek island of Syros.

Papadimitriou submitted his resignation to Tsipras “for reasons of political sensitivity,” an economy ministry official told Reuters. That came shortly after his wife stepped down but not before writing a statement defending the legality of what she did but understanding the outrage it caused in Greek society, with the government slashing benefits for pensioners, the poor, the handicapped and the people Tsipras vowed to protect.

Alternate Labour Minister Rania Antonopoulou (L). (Photo by Eurokinissi/Yiannis Panagopoulos)

Opposition parties had called for her removal, arguing that the payments, while legal, were improper given the high level of poverty in Greece following eight years of severe financial crisis.

The government said it plans to abolish the housing subsidy for Cabinet members who are not Members of Parliament, erasing its own law that gave rent money to the rich. It wasn’t revealed if other ministers were getting subsidies.

Opposition New Democracy chief Kyriakos Mitsotakis denounced the government, saying it took “three whole days of intense reaction” before Tsipras demanded her resignation.

He also criticized SYRIZA for passing the law in 2015 that allowed “Antonopoulou and her husband to claim the subsidy while the country was sinking,” economically.

The resignations came at an acutely sensitive time for the government, which includes the pro-austerity, marginal, jingoistic Independent Greeks (ANEL) of Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, who opposes Tsipras’ plan to let the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) keep the word Macedonia – an abutting ancient Greek province – in a new name.

Envoys from the country’s creditors, to whom Tsipras surrendered and broke promises to help workers, pensioners and the poor so that Greece could get a third bailout, this one for 86 billion euros ($106.07 billion) also just arrived back in Athens for a fourth and last review of demanded austerity measures that remain undone.

The brouhaha overshadowed the government’s push for the prosecution of 10 rival politicians alleged to have taken as much as 50 million euros ($61.65 million) from the Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis to fix market prices and control flu shots.

The targets, including former Premier and then-New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras, denounced the case as a manufactured fraud designed to get them with Tsipras reeling in polls over his reneging and as they said he wanted to distract attention from the Macedonia name giveway opposed by two-thirds of Greeks.

BIG HOLDINGS

The newspaper Eleftheros Typos made the initial report about Antonopoulou seeking the subsidy, sparking immediate rage that she and her husband were getting benefits while the country’s most vulnerable were seeing theirs cut.

Before she quit, government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos told Real FM Tsipras had spoken to Antonopoulou, telling her it was “not right” that she had exploited the subsidy but he didn’t immediately demand she step down.

Tzanakopoulos said Tsipras didn’t think ministers, who hold wealth, should use the rent subsidy law even though it was passed by his government to benefit them.

She said she would begin the process of repaying the 23,000 euros without indicating why she couldn’t do it immediately given the couple’s wealth, more than 3 million euros ($3.7 million) as well as real estate.

The newspaper said Antonopoulou, in a declaration of wealth required of politicians, reported she had $340,000 in shares and $11,400 in Greek banks under capital controls limiting transfers abroad.

Papadimitriou reported a fortune of $2,725,881 before becoming Economy Minister in 2015 and defending Tsipras’s reneging on austerity promises. His first year as minister he reported another $453,429 and the couple reported they had $480,154 in foreign bank accounts, which many Greeks prefer to hide their incomes and as Tsipras said they shoudl return their money to Greece.

They own a 110-square meter (360.9 square-foot property in New York and a 300-square meter (984-square foot) villa on Syros with an 80-square meter (262.46-square foot) swimming pool.

They said they had no property in Athens so need to rent an apartment, although his wealth statement shows a 31.6-square meter (103.67-square foot) apartment in the well-to-do seaside area of Glyfada, the paper said, which was reported to be owned by the Finance Ministry, adding no further details or explanation.

THE MORAL OUTRAGE

In her statement, Antonopoulou admitted that :“I have requested and received a significant amount as a rent subsidy. All deputies living outside Athens have made use of the provision since 1994 without any other income conditions.”

FILE-In this Saturday, Oct. 5, 2016 file photo, then newly appointed Development Minister Dimitri Papadimitriou takes an oath during a swearing in ceremony at the Presidential palace in Athens. (AP Photo/Yorgos Karahalis, File)

She said it ended in August, 2017 when she didn’t re-apply for the benefit without explaining why as she simultaneously said it was legal. “Since all my actions were in accordance with the law, I did not understand that there was anything controversial or doubtful about my choice, as the subsidy is part of my payment,” she argued.

“It was never my intention to scandalize public opinion, nor to offend the Greek people. I am fully aware that my fee for the services I provide comes from their labours. Especially in this period of crisis, when thousands fear for their homes, incomes and loans, I realize that every benefit is considered outrageous, even if it’s legal. I also understand that my financial situation, as shown by the wealth statements I have made, has strengthened people’s indignation,” she added.

“Three years ago,” she added,” when Alexis Tsipras proposed me as a state deputy and then as a minister, I accepted the honour without a second thought about what I would leave behind.”

Antonopoulou said that she remained at Tsipras’ disposal, even after being disposed because, “I did not come to Greece to become richer and because my sole concern was always to serve my country’s effort to overcome the economic crisis.

“I am asking all citizens to judge me for my work, as reflected by the decline in unemployment, not just today but especially during the first two difficult years of our governance,” she underlined.

She added: “ I never thought there was any ambiguity or culpability in my choice, since the subsidy is part of my remuneration. It was never my intention to to provoke the common sense of justice nor to insult the Greek people.”

“I ask to to be judged for the results of my work and not for an issue that for obvious reasons the Opposition chooses at this given time to heighten to the country’s number one moral issue,” she wrote.

The application Antonopoulou submitted was signed on Jan. 16, 2016 by Deputy Finance Minister G. Houliarakis asking the Labour Ministry to pay her 12,000 euros, and another for 12,000 euros from Jan. 9, 2015 to Aug. 31, 2016.

The resignations set off new talk of another Cabinet reshuffle with Papadimitriou being the third government official to step down after the resignation of his wife and that of Deputy Education Minister Costas Zouraris in January.

There have also been reports that Migration Policy Minister Yiannis Mouzalas, ripped even within SYRIZA for his handling of a refugee crisis, may be replaced, saying it would be for health reasons, the newspaper Kathimerini said.