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The Georgiou affair: how Greece keeps failing the political corruption test

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After the election in Greece last summer, the country seemed to be on a positive path away from populism towards a more stable political environment. Though born into his party New Democracy, the new prime minister, Kyriakos Mistotakis, brought with him the air of the outside world: he had been a banker and consultant in London, before entering Greek politics in the early 2000s. Yet, he seems to stick to the same common thread as his predecessors in office since 2011: the persecution of the former head of ELSTAT, Andreas Georgiou, who took over as the head of the revamped Greek statistical office in August 2010 following the exposure in 2009 of how the national statistics had been falsified. Intriguingly, Georgiou and his staff have been persecuted relentlessly by political forces, whereas the falsification of the national statistics has not even been investigated at all. And not only that: those in positions of responsibility for the statistics from the time of falsified statistics sued Andreas Georgiou for slander and won at first instance civil court in 2017; since then, Georgiou’s hearing to appeal this decision has been continuously postponed, most recently to September 2020.  

Just like Icelanders, Greeks earned a lot of sympathy when Greece tumbled into a financial crisis in 2009. But the Greek crisis exposed that the political ruling class in Greece had, since the end of the 1990s, falsified the Greek national statistics, i.e. the government deficit and debt were considerably higher than the published figures showed. For example, the deficit in 2006, 2007 and 2008 had been presented in official Greek statistics in mid-2009, just before the Greek crisis erupted, at 2.8%, 3.6% and 5% of GDP, respectively. However, the real figures, which were calculated by ELSTAT, the reformed statistical office, in 2010, were about double that, reaching 6.2%, 6.8% and 9.9% of GDP, respectively. And the government debt, which had been misreported at oscillating from 96 to 99% of GDP those years, was actually rising and had reached 110% of GDP by end 2008.

After years of legal wrangling, there seems to be no end in sight of the persecutions of the statistician who put Greek statistics on the path stipulated by European regulations on national statistics. Persecutions, which are an affront to Greek and European rule of law on many counts. If the Greek Government of Mitsotakis wants to confirm that the bad habits of falsified statistics are well and truly over and that Greece is firmly in the core of the European Union, it should give the Greek courts an opportunity to right a wrong and to exonerate Andreas Georgiou instead of punishing him for doing his job according to the European and Greek law.

Exposed: Greek statistical frauds… from 1997 to 2003

Greek statistics, as they are now for the years before the crisis hit, are not what Greek statistics were showing before autumn of 2009. Not for the first time, there was a lingering suspicion that not all was well with Greek statistics. Before joining the euro in 2001, the Greek budget deficit and public debt dived miraculously low, well below their less glorious average in the years before joining the euro. Although only the deficit figure ever went below the required Maastricht criteria, Greece was allowed to join the euro.

The lingering suspicion was there for a reason. Already in 2004 Eurostat had discovered that the debt and deficit dip around the euro entry was no miracle but manipulation: Greek authorities simply reported the wrong figures. In 2004, Eurostat’s Report on the revision of the Greek government deficit and debt figures showed that this had been an on-going story from 1997 to 2003.

Consequently, the Greek statistical authorities, the then National Statistical Service of Greece, NSSG, was forced to revise its data upward for the years 1997 to 2003, including for the test year of 1999 for Greece’s entry into the Eurozone, above the criteria set by the EU for Greece: Revisions in statistics, and in particular in government deficit data, are not unusual… However, the recent revision of the Greek budgetary data is exceptional.” – The unusual aspect was that the wrong figures did not stem from missing or faulty data but from deliberate misreporting. The real figures were dismal so “better” figures, even though wrong, were reported.

Exposed again in 2009: repeated falsifications of national statistics

After the exposure in 2004, Greek statistics were under intense and unprecedented scrutiny. But NSSG was not prepared to abandon its earlier bad practices. In autumn 2009 the ECOFIN Council requested a new report, this time from the EU Commission, due to “renewed problems in the Greek fiscal statistics” after the “reliability of Greek government deficit and debt statistics (has) been the subject of continuous and unique attention for several years.

Greek figures on debt and deficit had, yet again, significant problems: First, deficit forecasts for 2009 changed drastically between March 2009 and September 2009 and then the forecasts changed again even further in October 2009. Regarding the actual statistics, the EC report on Greek Government Deficit and Debt Statistics, published in January 2010, showed that the statistics for the actual 2008 deficit had been revised upward significantly (by 2.7 % of GDP). Again, as the report pointed out, such a revision was rare in EU member states but have taken place for Greece on several occasions.” Once the real statistics for 2009 were available in April 2010, the numbers proved to be higher than any of the projections provided earlier and previous years’ statistics were again revised upwards.

As earlier, the faulty statistics had not been produced solely at the NSSG but were also made with components produced at the General Accounting Office (GAO) and other parts of the Ministry of Finance, as well as other public sector institutions responsible for providing data to NSSG. There was political interference and “deliberate misreporting” with the NSSG, GAO, MoF and other institutions involved in the reporting all playing their part, according to the January 2010 EC report. In total, the word “misreporting” was used eight times in the report.

Events before the setting up of ELSTAT and Georgiou’s time there

The Goldman Sachs, GS, off-market swap story was one chapter in the faulty statistics saga and one of many examples of misreporting affecting government deficit and debt statistics. In 2008, when Eurostat made official enquiries in all member states on off-market swaps, Greek authorities informed Eurostat promptly that the Greek state had engaged in nothing of the sort.

This statement turned out to be a blatant lie as Eurostat found out when investigating the matter in 2010; the findings were published in a Eurostat report (p.16) in November 2010. By 2009, this misreporting was understating the level of the Greek government debt by 2.3 percent of GDP. As with many other examples of faulty statistics, this misreporting, on the off-market swaps and the ensuing effect on government debt, was not a single event but a deceit running for years, in this case since 2001, where several Greek government agencies played their part.

Needless to say, fiddling with the numbers did not eradicate the actual debt and deficit problem. While this deceit was being uncovered in the last quarter of 2009 and early 2010, Greece was losing access to markets. Negotiations on a bailout were complicated by unreliable information on Greek public finances. On May 2, 2010, as the first Greek Memorandum of Understanding was signed, accompanied by a €110bn loan – €80bn from European institutions and €30bn from the IMF – it was clear that the crucial figures of debt and deficit might still go up.

Following these major failures at the NSSG, its head had resigned in mid-October 2009. With the new government of George Papandreou taking office in early October 2009, there were changes at the leadership of the MoF and the GAO, with a new minister, vice minister and general secretaries. However, the ranks below remained unchanged, as did the mentality.

With a new government and following these exposures the laws on official statistics were changed in the spring of 2010. NSSG was abolished, replaced by a new statistical office, ELSTAT. Andreas Georgiou, who having been with the IMF for more than 20 years, returned home to be the head of the new statistical office. After Georgiou took over, the last upward revisions to government deficit and debt data were done.

The context of the 2009 deficit and the statistical adjustments 2009 to 2010

It is important to keep in mind the context for the 2009 deficit: there was the forecasted deficit of 3.9% of GDP, put forth by the MoF and conveyed to the European Commission by NSSG in April 2009 and then the estimate of the actual 2009 deficit of 13.6%, as produced and reported by NSSG in April 2010. All of this, an upward adjustment of almost 10 percentage points of GDP, took place before Georgiou took over at ELSTAT in August 2010.

With the 2009 deficit number of 13.6% in April 2010, way up from the originally forecasted 3.9%, it was still clear and publicised by Eurostat that the final figure could be higher. As indeed it was: the final adjustment from 13.6% to 15.4% was made by Georgiou and his team. The actual monetary figure behind the last revision of the deficit figure was about 4 billion euro.

This final adjustment made by Georgiou and his team seemed at the time wholly innocuous and a straightforward continuation of the earlier and much larger adjustments. But things were changing in Greece, though not in the direction of what those hoping for new and better times in Greece, would have hoped for.

The worm pit of Greek politics

Greek politics was a veritable worm pit during these months of fears over the country’s finances as the Papandreou government negotiated rescue packages and bailouts – in May 2010 and in June 2011 – with the IMF and European institutions.

After the elections that New Democracy lost in early October 2009, Antonis Samaras replaced the long-standing and earlier so powerful leader of the party of 12 years, Kostas Karamanlis. Karamanlis had been prime minister from 2004 until he lost the elections in 2009, that is during the time of the second round of the fraudulent statistics. In a much-noted speech in September 2011, Samaras attacked George Papandreou, accusing him of manipulating the statistics after Papandreou came to power in 2009, claiming Papandreou had done this only to discredit Kostas Karamanlis. This speech proved fateful, not for Papandreou but for ELSTAT’s president Andreas Georgiou.

Shortly after the Samaras’ speech, Georgiou was called to the parliament to explain the revision of the deficit and debt figures he had done. He was accused of ignoring national interests and inflating the 2009 figures under instruction of Eurostat to push Greece into the Adjustment Programme, set up to save the Greek state.

This narrative ignored four facts: the main corrections had been done before Georgiou took over at ELSTAT; Georgiou followed the same European regulation on national accounts statistics (Regulation 2223/96) and the same European Statistics Code of Practice as all other statistical offices in the EU; Greece had entered the Adjustment Programme three months before Georgiou took over at ELSTAT; Greece had repeatedly reported faulty data up to 2004 and then again up to end of 2009.

Political figures both on the left and the right of the political spectrum united against the ELSTAT president as if the only reason for the country’s debt and deficit problems were the statistics. The Greek Association of Lawyers even accused Georgiou of high treason.

Politicians unite in finding a scapegoat for the crisis: ELSTAT staff

In addition to the parliamentary hearing, the Samaras’ speech sat another thing in motion: a prosecutor opened a case against Georgiou and two ELSTAT managers and eventually pressed criminal charges in January 2013. In August 2013 an investigating judge recommended that the case be dropped as nothing was found to merit taking the case further.

However, political interventions, out in the open for all to see, kept the case alive in the Greek judicial system where it has been like a yo-yo: two additional times, in 2014 and 2015, prosecutors proposed that the case be dropped. However, what followed were interventions from nearly all sides of the political spectrum, fuelling the narrative of “false statements on the 2009 deficit and debt,” thus allegedly causing the Greek state to suffer staggering damages. A narrative that pushed the case to trial where the punishment should be relative to the damages, calculated to amount to €171bn, effectively amounting to a prison sentence for life.

In 2015 the charges against Georgiou and two ELSTAT managers, for allegedly making false statements on the 2009 statistics, were dropped by the Appeals Court Council after proceedings behind closed doors. However, this decision was annulled by the Supreme Court in 2016 after a proposal by Greece’s Chief Prosecutor and the Appeals Court Council, with new members, had to reconsider the case.

In 2017, the Appeals Court Council decided again to drop the charges, but the Supreme Court yet again annulled the decision, following yet another proposal for annulment by the Chief Prosecutor, an extraordinary move in Greek legal history. Then, in March 2019, the Appeals Court Council, under yet a new composition, decided for a third time to drop the charges against Georgiou and two senior staff regarding the alleged inflation of the deficit. This time, the decision was not annulled by the Supreme Court.

An acquittal that did not end the case

However, charges against Georgiou for alleged violation of duty, for not bringing the 2009 revised deficit and debt figures to a vote by the former board of ELSTAT before their publication in November 2010, were upheld. This, despite proposals to the contrary, by various investigating judges and prosecutors assigned to the case on three different occasions, in 2013, 2014 and 2015. Eventually, Georgiou was tried in open court in 2016 and acquitted.

However, this acquittal did not put an end to the case: ten days later, and before even the rationale of the acquitting decision had been made available, another prosecutor annulled the acquittal and Georgiou had to be retried in a “Double Jeopardy” trial in 2017. He was convicted to two years in jail, a suspended sentence unless he gets another conviction within three years. Georgiou appealed to the Greek Supreme Court, but his appeal was rejected, and the conviction sustained in a 2018 Supreme Court decision.

In court, Georgiou had argued that he was following both Greek and EU law, which refer to the European Statistics Code of Practice, making it clear that the head of the statistical authority has the “sole responsibility for deciding on statistical methods, standards and procedures, and on the content and timing of statistical releases”.

Georgiou requested the Greek courts to put – as provided in the Treaties – a pre-trial question to the European Court of Justice on the matter of the interpretation of the European Statistics Code of Practice in this matter; the courts ignored Georgiou’s request. Instead the convicting decision chose to use a blatantly false translation and interpretation of the European Statistics Code of the Practice asserting that “sole responsibility for deciding” does not really mean what is stated in the Code.

It seems safe to conclude that the conviction of Andreas Georgiou to two years in jail for not putting up the revised deficit and debt statistics to a vote does not rhyme with Greek and European rule of law. If the Greek Government of Mitsotakis wanted to set Greece back on the right track in this fundamental area and show that Greece is firmly in the core of the EU, it should initiate a re-examination of the case and give the Greek courts an opportunity to right a wrong and to exonerate Andreas Georgiou as he did his job according to the European and Greek law.

Further, two criminal cases

There are also two other ongoing criminal cases in Greece involving Andreas Georgiou.

In September 2016, the Chief Prosecutor of Greece ordered a new, preliminary criminal investigation into allegedly the 2009 deficit figures. This case, not the same as the case in which Georgiou and the two ELSTAT staff were acquitted in 2019, implicated not only Georgiou and the two ELSTAT staff for inflating the deficit figures but also officials from the European Commission, Eurostat and the IMF. So far, no charges have been pressed and Georgiou has not been summoned by the assigned prosecutor.

Another criminal case against Andreas Georgiou is with regard to his requesting ELSTAT staff in 2013 to sign a statistical confidentiality declaration, as required under the European Statistics Code of Practice, Indicator 5.2, for the purpose of protecting the private information of households and enterprises. There were two separate preliminary criminal investigations initiated in mid-2013 related to the Code, later combined into one. To this date no charges have been pressed but, as with the above-mentioned case, there is no evidence that the case has been closed.

If Greece and its political class wants to stop the scapegoating, all these cases against Andreas Georgiou ought to be dropped.

In addition to criminal cases: civil cases

In 2014, a civil case for criminal slander was brought against Georgiou. The plaintiff was Nikos Stroblos, who had been director of national accounts of the Greek statistics office in 2006 to 2010. Stroblos claimed Georgiou had engaged in criminal slander when he, as head of ELSTAT issued a press release in 2014, defending the final revised 2009 deficit and debt statistics produced by ELSTAT after Georgiou took over. The press release was published because of the legal proceedings since 2011 and the continuous attacks from most of the Greek political spectrum.

In 2017, the First Instance Civil Court decided that Georgiou had committed what is called in Greek legal terminology “simple slander,” meaning that what Georgiou said in his press release was true but had hurt the plaintiff’s reputation, (as opposed to “criminal slander”, whereby false statements are made to hurt somebody’s reputation). Thus, the court decided that Georgiou told the truth but he should not have made the statement he did. To atone for this, Georgiou was obliged to pay a compensation to the plaintiff and make a public apology in the Greek newspaper, Kathimerini, in the form of publishing large parts of the court decision against him.

When Georgiou appealed the decision, things took a peculiar turn: the appeal hearing has been postponed time and again. The last delay happened in January this year: the case was scheduled for January 16 but then postponed, for more than nine months, until September 24, 2020.

There is a peculiar irony here: Georgiou is appealing a court decision that found him guilty of “simple” slander for publicly defending his agency’s work; in layman’s terms, he was found liable for making true statements that happened to hurt someone’s reputation, an actual crime in Greece. If found liable, the person who restored the credibility of Greek statistics will have to publicly apologize to the person who was fudging the data previously and pay him compensation. This outcome would further damage Greece’s troubled image in the eyes of the global community.

European Convention on Human Rights: cases should be heard within a reasonable time

Now, six years after this civil case started, and nine years after Georgiou was first put under investigation, he and his family are still living with these never-ending court proceedings and the eternal postponements. It is of interest to keep in mind Article 6.1. of the European Convention on Human Rights:  In the determination of his civil rights and obligations or of any criminal charge against him, everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time by an independent and impartial tribunal established by law.

Interestingly, one of Stroblos’ witnesses in the civil suit against Georgiou is Nikos Logothetis, who was vice-chairman of the board of ELSTAT when the board had demanded to vote on the revised 2009 deficit and debt figures in November 2010. Only weeks earlier, Logothetis was forced to resign from the ELSTAT board after the Greek police found that Logothetis had hacked Georgiou’s private email. A criminal investigation was opened against Logothetis at that time and in early 2011 two charges, of felony and misdemeanour, were pressed against him.

However, both cases against him were dropped for reasons that are difficult to fathom in the context of the rule of law and how Georgiou’s cases have fared in the Greek courts: one case was dropped as the court did not consider it before the five-year statute of limitations expired; the other case was thrown out because a receipt for a €20 fee, due when a complaint is filed, could not be found in the court file. And then, as if this was not scandalous enough, the court later met Logothetis’ request: that his computer, which the police had previously confiscated and which still contained Georgiou’s stolen emails, should be handed back to him.

International support for Georgiou – but that does not save him from the persecutions

There have been many instances of international support for Andreas Georgiou over the years. Below are some examples of recent ones.

The European Commission has repeatedly mentioned Georgiou’s case in its periodic reports of the post-program reviews for Greece. In its November 2019 Enhanced Surveillance Report it noted: The Commission has continued to monitor developments in relation to the legal proceedings against … the former President and senior staff of the Hellenic Statistical Authority. The case against the former Hellenic Statistical Authority President A. Georgiou related to charges filed in connection with fiscal statistics has been irrevocably dismissed. An appeal introduced by Mr. Georgiou in a civil defamation lawsuit is scheduled to be heard in January 2020.”

The International Statistical Institute noted in a statement published in December 2019: “It is of great concern to us that the legal harassment of Mr Georgiou is not yet over. There are three legal cases against him in Greece which are still open. He took these actions in accordance with statistical principles in his capacity as head of the national statistics office… Defending official statistics, as required by the UN Fundamental Principles of Statistics and the European Statistics Code of Practice, should not lead to any legal proceedings and even less to damages being awarded and public apologies. Now is the time for a fresh start in Greek statistics, and the ending of the victimisation of Mr Georgiou.”

The Board of the American Statistical Association also issued a statement in December 2019 stating inter alia that the Association was “troubled by Greece’s continued persecution of its former head statistician. Now in the ninth year, there are still open investigations and trials of Georgiou, a government professional who is loyal to his country. Greece’s new government provides an opportunity to remedy the unjust official treatment of Georgiou. Ending the prosecutions, accusations and legal proceedings and exonerating Georgiou would signal Greece’s commitment to accurate and ethical official statistics. This, in turn, could help foster foreign investment and overall confidence among Greece’s international partners, which helps Greece’s economy.”

Political witch hunt

In August 2017, Nikos Konstandaras columnist at Kathimerini and the New York Times warned that the Georgiou affair was “a witch hunt, not a thirst for justice.” Konstandaras concluded:

Beyond the injustice and the terrible personal cost for a fellow citizen, beyond the damage to the country’s credibility, the most tragic aspect of the affair is that people who know how dangerous this all is are investing in fantasies and encouraging fanaticism.

History, though, will record the role they played. In the end they will be loaded with more blame than that which they are trying to saddle onto others.

Now, more than two and a half years after this was written, the persecution of a civil servant who did what he was supposed to do, is still ongoing. Much to the shame of Greece the man who led ELSTAT from August 2010 to August 2015, putting in procedures for correct reporting of statistics following the exposure of fraudulent statistics for over a decade, is being prosecuted. At the same time, the people who for years provided false and fraudulent statistics to Greece, European authorities and the world, enjoy total impunity and even participate and benefit from Georgiou’s prosecutions.

In an article in the Washington Post as recently as 2 January this year, Georgiou’s case was brought up, pointing out how both professional rivals and politicians had decided to scapegoat Georgiou during the contagious time he was in office, creating the narrative that “he had “inflated” the deficit to “trap” Greece into accepting bigger international bailouts, with harsher conditions, than it needed.”

As pointed out, “the Greek government has changed hands multiple times” since the legal cases against Georgiou started, a particularly damning point for Mitsotakis and his government. “So far, though, those in power have continued to foment or tolerate the scapegoating of civil servants, and refused to help Georgiou clear his name.”

A worrying disincentive to service truthful information

The numerous prosecutions are utterly damning for the Greek political system. Equally, that the IMF and EU have not been able to adequately and decisively assist the quest for truthful statistics. It is a travesty of the rule of law that a civil servant has for more than eight years been persecuted for doing his job truthfully, to the professional standards expected of his office. A travesty that is harmful for not only for Greek civil servants and their work but elsewhere. Or, as concluded in the Washington Post article 2 January:

“And make no mistake: Georgiou may be the primary victim of this weaponization of the judicial system, but he is hardly its only target. Other civil servants — in Greece and in other countries weighing their commitment to rule of law — are watching and learning what happens when a number cruncher decides to tell the truth.”

In December 2016, Georgiou said to Icelog:The numerous prosecutions and investigations against me and others that have been going on for years – as well as the persistence of political attacks and the absence of support by consecutive governments – have created disincentives for official statisticians in Greece to produce credible statistics. As a result, we cannot rule out the prospect that the problem with Greece’s European statistics will re-emerge. The damage already caused concerns not only official statistics in Greece, but more widely in the EU and around the world, and will take time and effort to reverse.

How can Greece, the political class in Greece, face the fact that an innocent man is persecuted, and the real fraud of national statistics has never been investigated?

*Icelog has followed the Georgiou case since I visited Greece in 2015. See here for earlier blogs on the case.

Follow me on Twitter for running updates.

Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

April 2nd, 2020 at 6:43 pm

Posted in Uncategorised

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  1. […] Sigrún Davíðsdóttir reviews the Georgiou saga, suggesting exhonoration for Georgiou’s conviction of violation of duty. Read the English Language article here. […]

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