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Letter for Athens: During COVID-19, Tax Cheats, Bankers Get a Vaccine from Prosecution

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Bank of Greece. (Photo by Eurokinissi/ Yiannis Panagopoulos

If you're a Greek or resident who owes 500 euros, 1000 euros or relatively small amounts to banks or creditors, you're being hounded, even during the COVID-19 pandemic to pay. 

This during a time when many people are either without work, driven down by repeated austerity measures, or temporarily laid off during a second lockdown aimed at preventing the spread of the Coronavirus. 

The ruling New Democracy Capitalists and former PASOK Anti-Socialists didn't have these worries when they became debtors in 2012 after implementing those Draconian measures on workers, pensioners, and the constant poor. 

They took out 232 million euros ($275.31 million) in loans, using as insufficient collateral 37 million euros ($43.91 million) in taxpayer money that parties elected to Parliament get – without having to account for how it's spent – and didn't pay it all back, said Reuters at the time. There's been no update. 

To make sure they wouldn't be accountable, or have any annoying financial crime prosecutors poking around – or bank officials asking where the money is – they gave immunity to the bank officers who signed off on the scam, although New Democracy said some of the loans were being serviced. 

Now why can't we have banks like that? How great is that? 

Times couldn't be tougher for many people, even worse than during the near decade-long economic and austerity crisis whose effects are still being felt, because no one knows how long the pandemic will last and how many businesses or jobs will be lost. 

Since many Greeks pay no taxes because many wealthy hide their money in secret foreign bank accounts, and legions of professionals including doctors and lawyers – officers of the court – demand payment in cash to evade paying taxes, the burden for supporting their country falls on salaried workers.

None of this is news, but what still startles is the endless avarice of those in power who are ruthless in demanding the poor and middle class pay so they don't have to, starting with Greece's essentially tax-free shipping tycoons and oligarchs. 

Greece needs money desperately now with the economy set to shrink at least 10 percent this year because of the fallout from the pandemic that has again closed businesses on top of a disastrous summer tourism season. 

But New Democracy, instead of hunting down tax cheats as promised – every government says that of course and then walks away – has given amnesty to people who didn't pay, which means those who do will have to double down and cough it up. 

The Parliament controlled by New Democracy okayed a bill giving a pass to thousands of alleged tax evaders in a move critics said was aimed at benefiting Greek bankers facing breach of trust charges, undermining anti-money laundering laws. 

The Financial Times said opponents of the move, including rival parties, lawyers, and prosecutors, worried it could set a worrying precedent, let tax cheats off the hook and only encourage more who don't want to be the only suckers paying. 

They said the amendment rewards high-profile tax evaders, curbs the independence of public prosecutors, and will taint Greece’s reputation as it tries to attract fresh investment from abroad to help rebuild the economy. 

The legislation will freeze criminal probes by prosecutors and court hearings of more than 5,000 alleged tax evaders with debts to the Greek state of more than 150,000 euros (176,764) and allow prosecutions only after all other measures to settle cases have been exhausted. 

That likely means very few cases will be taken to court as drawing out the process means they will run up against a five-year statute of limitation for tax offenses and be automatically dropped. 

“By postponing enforcement of tax laws the new legislation encourages rather than discourages corruption and tax evasion and weakens compliance with the rule of law,” Emilios Avgouleas, a financial law professor at Edinburgh University told the news site. 

Justice Minister Kostas Tsiaras, in a limp explanation, said the government wants to reduce the backlog of cases – they could do it by prosecutions – and that it would bring in revenues. How? 

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis' government tainted itself with this one and to take care of his party's rich buddies and bankers allowed himself to be besmirched, unlike him as a principled person. 

Worse, he gave an opening to the Looney Left SYRIZA – rebranded the SYRIZA Regressive Alliance – to take a shot at him and his party that couldn't be deflected, explained, or spun into cotton candy. 

“The government set up a special mechanism for the bankers in order to make these cases against them disappear,” said Effie Achtsioglou, the shadow finance minister for SYRIZA, a lightweight allowed to counter punch. 

These shenanigans came after the Parliament controlled by the Conservatives earlier approved a change in the penal code allowing bankers accused of criminal breach of trust to escape prosecution unless the bank requested an investigation. 

Good luck with that one. “Hey, we want our own bank investigated for wrongdoing!” How would that work out? 

Anna Zairi, head of Greece’s anti money-laundering agency, warned then that “serious offences would go unpunished because of this measure,” but was ignored and breach of trust charges against more than 250 Greek bankers were dropped. 

And that is just the way New Democracy wanted it.