Arms Scandal Left Greek Defenseless

Corruption is not a victimless crime, and it’s costly. When politicians or civil servants steal from the state, the cost is passed on to taxpayers one way or another, who wind up footing the bill for the thieves luxurious lifestyle.

Witness the growing scandal in the Greek Defense Ministry, which should be renamed the ATM Ministry because that’s what a lot of the people who worked there – now reportedly including some top former military leaders – used it for, a revolving cash register they rang up whenever they needed a couple of million euros of someone else’s money.

And it’s not just money that was the shame, but that by demanding bribes from arms manufacturers, inflating the cost of contracts, the crooks took money away from social programs that were more important than another submarine or fighter jet, useless commodities really in the 21st Century when Greece wouldn’t last 10 minutes if Turkey decided to attack.

That’s not going to happen since both countries are in NATO and even the United States and Great Britain, which allowed Turkey to unlawfully invade Cyprus in 1974 and side with the Turks against the Greeks behind closed doors, would stand by this time and let the countries come to war.

It was the arrest of former defense minister Akis “Mr. Arrogant” Tsochatzopoulos in 2012 that exposed the agency for what it was. Now that he’s been sentenced to 20 years in jail for money laundering and stealing perhaps a billion euros from defense contracts, the whole sad scheme of runaway greed is unraveling as thieves fall out.

Antonis Kantas, who was the procurements chief at the ministry from 1997-2002, serving Tsochatzopoulos and his successor as defense minister, Yiannis Papantoniou – being prosecuted for failing to report the source of his wealth – has testified that almost everyone had their hand out looking for bribes.

Now that he’s singing like a canary, Kantas is showing the defense ministry to be really just an excuse for people to steal as much as they could, including him. He admitted taking $16 million which he stashed away in banks in Singapore and Switzerland and has been returning it, apparently hoping to get a Stay Out of Jail Free card.

The hundreds of millions of euros that Kantas and his cohorts stole could have gone a long way toward keeping some social programs that have been cut the last 3 ½ years during a crushing economic crisis.

You can bet that the greed didn’t stop in 2002 and that those working at or connected to the ministry and defense contracts have been siphoning off plenty since then. Alternate Finance Minister Christos Staikouras said the money Kantas is returning would go toward “covering shortfalls in the health and education sectors.”

A year ago, The Washington, D.C.-based prestigious think tank the Brookings Institution estimated that corruption is costing Greece some 20 billion euros ($26.7 billion) which, combined with lost revenues from the country’s notoriously tangled and inefficient bureaucracy, is crippling efforts to reform the debt-crunched economy.

The General Inspector of Public Adminstration Leandros Rakintzis said, “Both combined make up about 30-32 billion ($40-$42 billion). If for 10 years, we could this or part of this, we might not have had all this public debt or all this crisis.”

That’s nearly equivalent to 10 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) leaving Greece to have to borrow $325 billion from international lenders, who demanded austerity measures in return.

Greek defense and military officials – which may have included the former chiefs of staff of the army and navy according to testimony being given by middlemen who arranged the bribes – used the excuse 20 years ago that Greece had to beef up its defenses against Turkey.

It was a False War and what Greece really needed was an early warning defense system against the defense and military officials who left their own country defenseless, leading arms dealers to cut corners on the corners, jeopardizing the lives of real soldiers and sailors and pilots trying to protect the country.

Kantas has implicated a number of people, including Tsochatzopoulos, while two other witnesses, Dimitris Papachristos, 78 – said to be suffering from amnesia – and Panagiotis Efstathiou, 83, are spilling the beans about how corrupt officials at the agency and military really were.

Kantas claimed he received the bribes from local representatives of foreign arms manufacturers, including German, French and Russian firms. The deals allegedly included submarine, tank, fighter jet and missile purchases.

While everyone in Greece knows and expects that politicians and mid-level managers in ministries have their hands in the till, the idea that military officers were involved has actually produced some gasps, along with a sinking feeling that people charged with defending Greece were betraying it.

The Defense Ministry, which now has a reputation as bad as Afghanistan, has pledged to overhaul arms procurement procedures following the arrest of those former weapons contract negotiators accused of paying bribes for major government contracts, although what’s really surprising is that they haven’t named any more politicians or big shot.

Defense Minister Dimitris Avramopoulos said the ministry was working on plans to place arms contracts under increased parliamentary oversight to “guarantee the reputation of the armed forces.”

It’s too late for that, although Papachristos raised the specter of the perfect defense for crooks: I forgot I stole the money.