Former Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek (Civic Democrats, ODS) —and his then minister of defense, among others — were fully informed about an alleged attempt to solicit a bribe from a former US ambassador, says Weston Stacey, the executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce in the Czech Republic (AmCham) in an exclusive interview with Czech Position.
Back in 2006, the Czech military purchased 556 Czech-made Tatra all-terrain trucks after awarding the Kč 2.7 billion supply contract to the company without holding a tender. Martin Barták (ODS), a former minister of defense, is now on unpaid leave from his post as deputy finance minister and under police investigation following allegations by ex-US Ambassador to Prague William J. Cabannis that he had solicited a bribe from him in February 2008, when Cabannis had become Tatra’s supervisory board chairman.
“[He] sent three letters — to the prime minister, the minister of finance, and the minister of defense,” Stacey said, adding that the letters went unanswered. “There was no reply […] I think it was also very unfair of people in the Czech government to say that Tatra waited two years to inform them — Tatra tried to inform them, immediately afterward.”
Tatra CEO Ronald Adams, the current president of the AmCham board of directors, has also confirmed for Czech Position that he, together with Cabaniss, addressed the letters in question to Mirek Topolánek, then-Defense Minister Vlasta Parkanová, and then-Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek (also the current finance minister).
“We sent a letter — hand delivered — to PM Topolánek with no answer and no meeting; we sent the same letter to the minister of finance, Mr. Kalousek, with no meeting, no response; and we sent the letter to Deputy Minister Barták and again no response to our request to talk,” Adams said in a video interview published on the AmCham site on Dec. 3. “I won’t comment on this slanderous and obviously self-defensive campaign by the obviously corrupt management of Tatra and I’m surprised anyone would be duped into this media campaign,” Topolánek told Czech Position.
“Maybe we should have done it [gone public with the accusation] two years ago. But if you put yourself in our position two years ago with the situation in the Czech Republic, in the government, in the MoD… We didn’t know who was involved in this web of corruption and, as it turns out, maybe more people were involved than we thought. So the question was who would we go to? Not knowing which of those people in fact were behind the corruption,” Adams said.
Although Minister of Finance Kalousek (TOP 09) did not respond to an enquiry as to whether he received the letter from Cabaniss, the former premier was more forthcoming.
“I’ve no idea [about any letter]. I won’t comment on this slanderous and obviously self-defensive campaign by the obviously corrupt management of Tatra, and I’m surprised that anyone would be duped into this media campaign,” Topolánek told Czech Position.
The defense minister at the time of the alleged incident, Vlasta Parkanová (now TOP 09), said through her party’s press service that she doesn’t recall seeing any such letter.
US anti-bribery act (FCPA) not applicable
William J. Cabannis, a former ambassador to Prague who became supervisory board head of Czech truck maker Tatra’s US branch after leaving the diplomatic post, alleges that in February 2008, then-Deputy Defense Minister Barták solicited a multimillion dollar bribe to make Tatra’s problems with a Czech subcontractor “disappear.”
There has been much speculation in the Czech media as to why Cabannis did not make the attempted bribery charge known until just recently, when his meeting with the Czech official took place in Washington, D.C. on Feb.26, 2008.
Stacey explains why Cabannis made the charges against Barták public only weeks ago, in an interview with the daily Mladá fronta Dnes. “First of all, I think it’s probably wrong to say that Mr. Cabannis went to the media; the media went to him,” Stacey said, noting that lawyers and American businessmen told the ex-ambassador to say nothing about the affair because no investigation would come of it as long as Barták was in government.
“There had been some consideration to do it [speak out] before, but he was advised by people here that there would be no investigation as long as the accused was a deputy minister of the Ministry of Defense,” Stacey said. But he declined to name the people who advised Cabannis to keep silent.
Stacey also dismissed speculation that the whole affair was some conspiracy on the part of the US government with the aim of influencing Czech domestic affairs. “And one of the reasons that I would speak publically about this is because I want to make it clear to everyone that it’s not [some conspiracy],” he said.
The AmCham chief executive also dismisses the possibility that the FBI suspended an investigation into the charges against Barták in deference to bilateral US-Czech negotiations on stationing part of a planned anti-missile defense base on Czech soil.
“Both he and [Duncan Sellars, president of Tatra’s US branch] gave the evidence that the deputy minister asked for a bribe, but the two refused and walked away — this is the evidence that has been given. So in this case, there was no US citizen involved in corrupt practices, and therefore there probably is no Foreign Corrupt Practices [Act] case. It’s my understanding that the legal authorities on both sides are looking into the case,” Stacey said.
Stacey says it is important that both the Czech Police organs and their US counterparts examine the case in full and trace the money.
Asked whether the purchase of Tatra all-terrain trucks for the Czech army was indicative of systemic corruption and could lead to charges of corruption against other officials, he said: “I think in any situation where you are dealing with a very large public contract, with this amount of money, with the number of people that have to be involved in that decision, it would be very rare if it was only a single person [Barták] that was involved in it,” Stacey said.
The key to deciphering such a complex web of commercial and political interests can therefore only be to trace money transfers related to the Tatra trucks contract for delivery to the army. Such investigations tend to be very complicated and usually involve cooperation of financial institutions from numerous countries, Stacey said.
Back in 2008, media reports emerged that an important figure in the Tatra deal in question was former soldier Pavel Stošek, who allegedly brokered the deal in the background for which he received a commission of Kč 27 million.
Pavla Kopecká, spokeswoman for the Czech Police, told the daily Právo that Viktor Čech, deputy police president of the Czech Republic, has ordered the formation of a team of anti-corruption detectives to investigate the affair.