New Democracy Says SYRIZA Aide Tied to Financial Scandal

Digital Economy and Media Minister Nikos Pappas. (Photo: Eurokinissi/Giannis Panagopoulos)

ATHENS – After being accused of running corrupt governments, the major opposition New Democracy has struck back at the ruling Radical Left SYRIZA, claiming top aide Manolis Petsitis is linked to a scandal involving offshore companies.

Petsitis, a former pizza restaurant waiter who has become wealthy working for the government,  is close to Digital Policy Minister Nikos Pappas, one of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ top advisers.

New Democracy asked anti-money laundering authority chief Anna Zairi to appear before the Parliament’s Institutions and Transparency Committee to respond to questions about the alleged scandal and reported dismissal of a senior official investigating the case, said Kathimerini.

Newspaper reports said officials probing Petsitis’ bank accounts in Greece and Cyprus had traced money whose origin could not be identified and that the money came from Artemis Artemiou, a Cypriot lawyer specializing in offshore companies.

Petsitis and Artemiou allegedly had business dealings with disgraced businessman Lavrentis Lavrentiadis, who is facing new fraud charges over his company Greek Fertilizers and Chemicals (ELFE) getting preferential treatment.

“New Democracy demands that Ms Zairi testify everything she knows on the scandals surrounding the Petsitis-Lavrentiadis-Artemiou triangle,” the party said in a statement.

The anti-money-laundering authority did not deny press reports regarding its probe into Petsitis’s accounts but said it couldn’t release information without hindering the ongoing investigation in Petsitis’ role.

Cyprus authorities had informally briefed their Greek counterparts on the content of the accounts, the newspaper said, with indications it could evolve into an embarrassing scandal surrounding the government and with both parties swapping charges of corruption in an election year.

New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis mocked the leftist government for claiming the “moral high ground” and said that, “The dark paths of entanglement will be exposed and the last fig leaf will fall off,” the government.

SYRIZA Administration spokesman said the allegations were fake news without explaining why, if so, the anti-money laundering authority is investigating Petsitis.

In January, Supreme Court prosecutor Xeni Dimitriou ordered an investigation into reports Petsitis tried to intervene so that a company owned by Lavrentiadis could get out of paying more than 120 million euros ($134.41 million) in debts to the Public Gas Corporation (DEPA) for unpaid bills.

The allegations pertain to debts to the state-owned company run up by Hellenic Fertilizers (ELFE), which is controlled by Lavrentiadis, who was released from prison in 2014 for alleged poor health but is still being allowed to run a company facing new fraud charges.

He is awaiting trial – five years later –  for embezzlement over the failed Proton Bank and, now also stands accused of complicity in bank fraud over the company’s unpaid debts to Alpha Bank but hasn’t been arrested.

According to the media reports that prompted the investigation, Petsitis had become a kind of middleman trying to help Lavrentiadis who was paying him.

Theodoros Kitsakos, a former DEPA CEO facing charges over the ELFE case said Petsitis appeared at DEPA’s offices in 2015 “claiming to represent the prime minister’s office” and asking for the gas company to get a deal to write off ELFE’s debt.

The former DEPA executive, who has been accused of accepting bribes to do that, claimed that Petsitis had been working for ELFE at the same time and was receiving a “very satisfactory salary.”

DEPA said checks paid to cover ELFE’s gas bills kept bouncing, has already filed suits against Lavrentiadis and 11 of his associates for fraud and racketeering but he hasn’t been charged or arrested for passing bad checks either.

Lavrentiadis, formerly the major shareholder at Proton Bank, was also ordered to pay 500,000 euros in bail ($560,022) although prosecutors said he stole at least 51,000,000,000 euros in various loan schemes to enrich himself.

Lavrentiadis is facing charges over running a criminal organization, money laundering, fraud and breach of faith in connection with alleged embezzlement at Proton Bank. He had completed 19 months in pre-trial custody, a month longer than the maximum period defendants are supposed to be held, barring extraordinary circumstances.

The investigation showed he may have been behind the theft of as much as 700 million euros ($928.7 million) from the bank, which helped bring it down.

An audit by the Bank of Greece, which regulates the industry, found that more than 40 percent of Proton’s commercial loans in 2010 were made to companies related to Lavrentiadis. The report says this was part of a misuse of the basic principles of lending and assurance.

A separate investigation, signed by a senior prosecutor who heads the country’s money laundering authority, found that Lavrentiadis – once hailed as the rising star of Greek business and known as a leading patron of the arts – formed a criminal team to drain the bank of its assets.

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