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On the trail of lost taxes in Greece

A Greek journalist has published a list of 2,000 wealthy Greeks purported to have Swiss bank accounts. Some are asking whether his publication will force the government to change the way they collect taxes.

The magazine editor, Kostas Vaxevanis, must have known that he might be arrested after he published a list of just over 2,000 names in his magazine "Hot Doc" at the weekend. Before the police came for him, he prepared a video statement which he sent to the news agency, Reuters, stating:

"I did nothing more than what a journalist is obliged to do. I revealed the truth that they were hiding. If anyone is accountable before the law, it is those ministers who hid the list, lost it and said it didn't exist. I'm a journalist, and I did my job."

The Greek police say that Vaxevanis needed special permission, which he didn't have, to publish such a list and violated laws on personal data; he's been charged with breach of privacy and appeared in court on Monda, and they set a trial date for November 1. But then the case took on a momentum of its own, as newspapers around the world started reporting Vaxevanis plight. After a 12 hour hearing, the judges on Thursday found him not guilty of breach of privacy, and Vaxevanis emerged vindicated. If he had been found guilty, he could have faced up to three years in prison. But as he emerged from the courtroom, news agencies reported, uncomfortable with his new found fame, he repeated: "My job is to simply tell the news and to tell it straight. My job it to tell the truth."

It seems for now he has won his battle, and proved his point. The French news agency, AFP, reported that as Mr Vaxevanis left the courtroom on Monday, he told the assembled crowd of journalists:

"The prosecutor's office wants to protect tax evaders. I'm just doing my duty. Instead of arresting the tax evaders and the ministers who had the list in their hands, they're trying to arrest the truth and freedom of the press."

Widening divide

A media crew, right, and pedestrians are silhouetted in front of the Greek parliament in central Athens (PHOTO: ddp images/AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)

The Greek government has lost billions in revenue through tax evasion

The list is thought to contain the names of wealthy politicians and businessmen, and has caused outrage among ordinary Greek people, who are facing fresh rounds of austerity by their government.

People protest that it is unfair that the wealthy can afford to allegedly squirrel their money away in Swiss bank accounts, leaving the less wealthy to essentially foot the bill for their lifestyle; a lifestyle which for some includes million and billion pound yachts to sail the Greek islands and beyond, several homes, luxury cars, designer dresses and jewellery.

A police spokesperson told Reuters that "there is no proof that the persons or companies included in that list have violated the law... on tax evasion or money laundering."


But can his publication help focus the efforts of the Greek government into cracking down even harder on the wealthier portion of the population?

Vaxevanis' publication of this list certainly threatens to fan the fires of a storm which started back in 2010 when former finance minister George Papaconstantinou was in office.

Papaconstantinou is said to have received the so called "Lagarde List" from the then French finance minister Christine Lagarde. He was abroad and unavailable for comment on Monday.

Europe's tax black hole?

Christine Lagarde, Washington, Friday, April 20, 2012. (Foto:Charles Dharapak/AP/dapd)

Lagarde was French finance minister at the time the list was sent to Greece

The French authorities were investigating allegations of European tax evasion through Swiss bank accounts, from information taken from a former HSBC employee Herve Falciani, after they raided his home in January 2009. By the middle of 2010, the French intelligence services had informed the Greeks that some of the names in the Falciani dossier were Greek.

Papaconstantinou apparently asked Lagarde to pass on the information and it arrived as an unlabelled CD. He claims to have then handed it to the head of the Greek tax authorities to investigate, and when his term of office as finance minister came to an end, he says he left it in the ministry.

The Greek finance ministry refused to comment on the matter. However, a source who wanted to remain unnamed, said that the current finance minister, Yannis Stournaras, had, 10 days ago, "written to the French authorities again, asking for a new copy of the list, in order to check whether the information is correct." On what they propose doing once this information is received, they refused to be drawn.

Robin Hood journalism?

Demonstrators in Athens29.06.2011 Foto: Orestis Panagiotou dpa

Greek people are angry that they're paying the price for austerity

Since his arrest, Vaxevanis has styled himself as a kind of investigative journalist, unmasking the corruption at the heart of the country's elite.

The Times in London wrote that the list is alleged to have included two former ministers and an advisor to the Prime Minister.

As the Greek Parliament this week considers a new package of cuts, savings and austerity measures in order to meet the latest repayment due in November, who might be evading tax, and how much they could contribute to the floundering public coffers is a hot topic.

Reports have suggested that the "Lagarde List" would be worth about 1.5 billion euros in extra tax revenue; a small amount in a country which faces having to repay 31.5 billion in November if further haircuts are not implemented. But there are rumors of a further 22 billion euros recoverable if the net were to be widened.

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