January 22, 2013 7:10 pm

Greece charges statisticians over size of deficit

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Greece has brought criminal charges against the official responsible for measuring the country’s debt, thereby calling into question the validity of its €172bn second bailout by the EU and International Monetary Fund.

Andreas Georgiou, head of the independent statistical agency Elstat, and two senior officials are accused of undermining the country’s “national interests” by inflating the 2009 budget deficit figure used as the benchmark for successive austerity packages.

The three statistical experts face criminal charges of making false statements and corrupt practices, a judicial official said, adding that if found guilty they could serve prison terms of five to 10 years. They have denied any wrongdoing.

Mr Georgiou denied Greek media reports that he had resigned from Elstat, but he declined to comment on the charges.

The move by Greece’s top financial prosecutors follows a 15-month investigation of allegations by Zoe Georganta, a Greek statistics professor, that Mr Georgiou’s team used inaccurate methods to increase the size of the 2009 deficit from 12 per cent to 15.8 per cent of national output, a record for a eurozone member state. Prof Georganta made the allegations against Mr Georgiou after she was sacked from the board of Elstat by Evangelos Venizelos, then finance minister.

The upwardly revised deficit figure was accepted by Eurostat, the Brussels statistical service, without reservation.

Elstat has since revised figures for the 2010 and 2011 budget deficits used to work out Greece’s aid requirement for its current bailout and the sustainability of its debt.

“If these figures are not considered accurate the whole basis for the provision of aid to Greece is not valid,” said one analyst who asked not to be named.

Elstat was established under the terms of Greece’s first bailout in 2010 as an independent agency to provide accurate statistics after years of fudged figures issued by Athens. According to revised Eurostat data, Greece would have failed to gain admission to the eurozone in 2001 because its deficit was too large.

“The practice was for the finance ministry’s general accounts office to collude with the Bank of Greece to come up with deficit and debt figures ignoring surveys carried out by the statistical service,” said an economist who also asked not to be named.

Mr Georgiou took leave of absence from his job at the IMF to set up the new agency, using consultants from other EU countries as advisers. Elstat has received praise from officials in Brussels for the improved quality of Greek statistics, but still faces pressure from politicians reluctant to accept its independence.

Both Christos Staikouras, the deputy finance minister in charge of the national accounting office, and former finance minister Philippos Sachinidis accused Elstat of working against Greek interests at a recent meeting of the parliamentary budget committee.

Political party representatives on the committee complained that Elstat, unlike its predecessor, was not “part of the government” and did not have to be supervised by the finance ministry. One lawmaker claimed the agency was “too focused on the numbers and not enough on serving the country and the government”.

The same financial prosecutors who have charged Mr Georgiou have also headed an investigation into the “Lagarde list” of 2,000 Greeks with Swiss bank accounts, which resulted in the indictment last week of George Papaconstantinou, former finance minister, for failing to pursue suspected tax evaders.

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