Ex-Czech PM Topolánek keeps ‘cool’ over Steyr bribe allegations via WikiLeaks

Steyr official told US Embassy in Prague staff of bribery attempt by lobbyist Marek Dalík via Defense Minister Martin Barták, cables show

HOT TOP|Politics & Policy|Foreign Affairs
Brian Kenety | 07.09.2011
Ex-PM Mirek Topolánek (left) and his friend and advisor Marek Dalík, accused of soliciting an €18 mln bribe from US-owned Austrian arms maker Steyr, at a February 2008 tennis match

After nearly two years largely out of the public eye, former Czech prime minister and Civic Democratic Party (ODS) chairman Mirek Topolánek was named on Monday as head of the country’s district heating association (ADH ČR) — a sexier and more influential post than it sounds, given the prominence and strategic importance of the energy sector.

But Topolánek’s return to the limelight was overshadowed by WikiLeaks’ publication of a fresh batch of US diplomatic cables related to alleged corruption during his time in power, especially regarding a Kč 14.4 billion order by the Czech Ministry of Defense (MoD) from an Austrian arms producer — and allegations that his long-time advisor and close friend, lobbyist Marek Dalík, had sought a bribe from the company to ensure its success.

“Widespread Czech press reporting of alleged corruption by Czech politicians involved in a billion-dollar contract between [US company] General Dynamics’ Austrian subsidiary Steyr Mannlicher and the Czech MoD for Pandur armored personnel carriers (APCs) is shaking the political scene,” wrote Chargé d’Affaires at the US Embassy in Prague, Mary Thompson-Jones, in a February 24, 2010 cable to Washington classified as “SECRET/NOFORN” (meaning not for release to foreign nationals).

In that cable (with the humorous title “PANDURA’S BOX: CORRUPTION SCANDAL LIFTS THE LID ON CZECH DEFENSE PROCUREMENT”) Thompson-Jones goes on to say that a Steyr official had told a US embassy official of the alleged role in the bribery attempt played by then Defense Minister Martin Barták (ODS) — now accused by a former US Ambassador to Prague William J Cabannis (2004–2006) of soliciting a bribe over another huge defense contract — and Topolánek’s right-hand man, Dalík.

The Czech military ordered 107 Pandur APCs

“During renegotiation of the Pandur contract in early 2008, we were told by a Steyr representative (reftel C) that Minister Barták had engineered an opportunity for former Topolánek protégé and lobbyist Marek Dalík to solicit a substantial bribe from Steyr in exchange for getting the contract back on track, an allegation which we could not independently confirm,” she wrote.

In another cable, dated October 17, 2007 and titled “CZECH POLITICAL DEJA VU: KLAUS, CORRUPTION, AND BACKROOM DEALS,” the then US Ambassador Richard W. Graber noted that Dalík was “Topolánek’s ubiquitous and unofficial adviser, fixer, and the current eminence grise of ODS politics,” whose apparent involvement in a car-leasing scandal tainting Topolánek dubbed “Volvogate” held prolonged public attention due to Dalík’s apparent involvement.

Martin Barták, central in the Tatra bribery case, allegedly arranged for Marek Dalík to meet Styer officials to solicit a bribe

Both Barták and Dalík have figured prominently in allegedly corrupt public contracts over the years. Ex-US diplomat Cabannis claims that in February 2008, after he had joined the supervisory board of the US branch of the Czech truck maker Tatra, Barták (then First Deputy Defense Minister) solicited a multi-million dollar bribe from him during a trip to Washington, DC in order to smooth over problems relating to a Kč 2.7 billion from the Czech military order for the company’s all-terrain vehicles — and that he duly informed Topolánek about it.

Back in 2006, the Czech military purchased 556 Tatra trucks after awarding the supply contract to the company without holding a tender, during Barták’s tenure at the Defense Ministry, where he held senior positions before himself becoming minister (May 8, 2009–July 13, 2010) under PM Jan Fischer’s caretaker government. Tatra was experiencing difficulties with a subcontract at the time of the alleged bribery attempt.

Cabannis and Duncan Sellars, president of Tatra’s US branch, claim Barták promised to make those problems with the supplier disappear — for a few million dollars. On leave from his subsequent post as deputy finance minister since November 2010, pending results of a criminal investigation, Barták denies the charges.

As with the Pandur case, bribery allegations regarding the Tatra trucks deal has yet to go to court

Apart from the Tatra affair, Barták has also been investigated over for his role in the Kč 3.6 billion procurement of 90 light transporters from the firm Iveco; Slovaka paid some 40 percent less per armored vehichle than the Czechs did. Current Defense Minister Alexandr Vondra (ODS) commissioned an audit of the deal, which showed that arms dealers and intermediaries Praga Export and Omnipol charged a mark-up of nearly 20 percent.

“Barták figures prominently in many of the alleged current procurement scandals at the MoD. Although Embassy Prague is unable to confirm any of the allegations against Barták, the circumstantial evidence is considerable,” Thompson-Jones wrote in a March 2009 cable titled “DEFENSE PROCUREMENT IN THE CZECH REPUBLIC: SHADY  DEALS AND BIG DOLLARS,” noting that even as first deputy minister under Vlasta Parkanová (KDU-ČSL) it appeared that Barták “really runs the ministry.”

Six percent — or three?

As noted in the US diplomatic cable, the Czech daily Mláda fronta Dnes had carried several reports earlier in February 2010 alleging “a major bribery scandal in which six percent of Steyr’s Pandur contract was supposedly parceled out as payoffs” to both the center-right ODS led by Topolánek and the center-left Social Democrats (ČSSD) led by Jiří Paroubek — both of whom called for a swift investigation and accused their opponents of the greater responsibility in the affair.”

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