Czech PM slams conflict of interest report as untrue

Demonstrators hold a rally demanding resignation of Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis in Prague, Czech Republic, May 21, 2019. — Reuters pic
Demonstrators hold a rally demanding resignation of Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis in Prague, Czech Republic, May 21, 2019. — Reuters pic

PRAGUE, May 31 — Billionaire Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis today slammed a newspaper story saying the European Commission had ruled he has a conflict of interest as a politician and entrepreneur.

The Commission has ordered an audit on suspicion that the Slovak-born Babis, who is the Czech Republic’s second wealthiest person, still rakes in profits from the company he founded.

Brussels has also halted subsidies to the food, chemicals and media Agrofert holding pending the audit verdict.

Babis transferred Agrofert to a fund in 2017, months before becoming prime minister, to avoid a conflict of interest.

But a public Slovak registry still lists him and his wife as the final benefactors of Agrofert’s units in Slovakia.

The Czech business daily Hospodarske noviny reported today that the Commission now wants back “all subsidies subject to the probe” Agrofert had received since February 2017.

“I am shocked by what Czech media are saying: that the EC wants back subsidies that my former company received. It is not true!” Babis said in a statement sent to AFP by his spokeswoman.

“The Czech Republic will definitely not have to return any subsidies. There is no reason for that because I’m not violating Czech or European conflict of interest laws.”

The ministries of finance and regional development have confirmed receiving the document but declined to elaborate.

The European Commission declined to comment on the matter. Its spokesperson told AFP that it “never comments on ongoing audit procedures and certainly not on leaks.”

Transparency International, which filed the complaint against Babis with the Commission, called on Czech ministries to make the report public.

“The insatiable prime minister has thrown the country into an unprecedented international disgrace,” David Ondracka, head of the watchdog, told reporters.

“He has deliberately bypassed the rules to help his business,” he added.

Citing two sources from Czech ministries, the Hospodarske noviny said the Commission report was “a top secret file”. It did not disclose the sum to be returned.

Babis leads a minority centre-left government of his populist ANO movement and the leftwing Social Democrats, relying on tacit support from the Communists for a parliamentary majority.

Babis, a 64-year-old former Communist, is also facing police charges over EU subsidy fraud and allegations he served as a secret police agent in the 1980s when the former Czechoslovakia was a Communist state.

Babis has repeatedly rejected the allegations as a smear campaign.

Despite his woes, ANO won last weekend’s European elections in the EU member state of 10.6 million people, gaining 21.2 per cent of the vote and six out of 21 European Parliament seats granted to the Czech Republic. — AFP

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