ATHENS – A tape recording said to show a fire chief under the former ruling Radical Left SYRIZA ordered a cover-up of July 23, 2018 wildfires that killed 102 people included more threats against a fire inspector trying to report on the chaotic response.
The recording and its contents were in an investigative report by the newspaper Kathimerini, with two male voices heard, reportedly then Deputy Fire Brigade Chief
Vassilis Matthaiopoulos and arson investigator Dimitris Liotsios.
The voice purportedly that of Matthaiopoulos is heard telling Liotsios to “bury the probe” so that the ruling government of then-Premier Alexis Tsipras nor anyone in power would be blamed for failures that raised the death toll.
Liotsios wanted to forward his findings to a prosecutor but ran into a hailstorm of threats he would find his career ended and be sent to a remote posting with Matthaiopoulos saying no help would be sent if a fire broke out.
The fire chief said he had already done that to get even with others during fires in the Mani region of the Peloponnese although it wasn't reported whether, if that happened, that people died because of it.
Matthaiopoulos was promoted to Fire Brigade Chief by the Tsipras government but it wasn't indicated that was a quid pro quo for him trying to protect the Leftists and to stay silent himself about what independent reports said was a shambolic response.
The families of some victims are suing officials and Reno Dourou, former Regional Governor of the Attica prefecture is being prosecuted but hasn't come to court in the two years since then. Liotsios is also suing Matthaiopoulos.
“His only aim was to force me… by threatening to commit illegal acts, to write and submit to the competent investigating authorities a false report,” Liotsios said of Matthaiopoulos, according to the newspaper.
Government spokesman Stelios Petsas said the alleged cover-up had “massive moral, political and criminal ramifications,” as the newspaper stood by its report and said the inquiry will try to determine whether SYRIZA officials and those in the fire service and other state bodies will be added to a list of 20 facing charges of gross negligence in connection with the tragedy.
The magistrate handling the investigation, Athanassios Marneris, has already summoned the first of the defendants including former Marathon mayor Ilias Psinakis, Kathimerini said it understood.
In the Mati tragedy, 28 people died huddled together on the ground as the inferno roared through, not knowing the seaside was just behind them but apparently obscured by smoke.
At the time, officials said the death toll was so high because of dozens of unlawfully built homes in a pine forest that prevented access to the sea but while Tsipras said he took “political responsibility,” his government denied any wrongdoing.
On the recording the voice said to be Matthaiopoulos is heard warning Liotsios what would happen to him if he revealed the truth.
"… Are you going to go up against the (local) forestry service (branch), they'll rip you a new one; are you going to go up against Dourou, she'll open your buttocks apart… Once we're accused, we'll put up three lawyers (up against you)…you'll be accused, accused, accused," he said, according to Naftemporiki.
At another point, the male voice making the threats cites an "order" by the "minister", warning him "not to write anything…nor that any culpability lies with your superiors; the minister told me this, saying 'call him (Liotsios), and tell him: Don't write that the mayor or Dourou or anyone is at fault, or any service or the forestry service'."
The minister in this case, in Greek, uses the feminine version of the noun, meaning a female minister but it wasn't indicated if it meant Dourou or someone else although former citizen's protection minister Olga Gerovassili, in that post during the fires, sent an extra-judicial petition to the paper demanding that it correct and retract the "slanderous, false, derogatory and, in all instances, illegal references" to her person, otherwise she would "proceed with the next steps," an indirect threat of legal action, a tactic commonly used in Greece to prevent investigations or prosecutions.
SYRIZA denied there was a cover-up and continued to say it was blameless for anything that happened.