Last updated: July 16, 2013 6:37 pm

Greek lawmakers vote to send George Papaconstantinou to trial

Former Greek Finance Minister George Papaconstantinou©AFP

Greek lawmakers have voted by an overwhelming majority to send former finance minister George Papaconstantinou to trial on criminal charges of tampering with a list of alleged Greek tax evaders with Swiss bank accounts provided by French authorities while he was in office.

The vote in the early hours of Tuesday came after a highly charged debate on the findings of a six-month parliamentary inquiry into the so-called “Lagarde list” – named after Christine Lagarde, former French finance minister and now managing director of the International Monetary Fund – of 2,000 Greeks, including prominent politicians and members of the country’s business elite, with accounts totalling about €6bn at an HSBC branch in Geneva.

The case triggered strong public reaction following the publication of the list last year by Hot Doc, a Greek investigative magazine, as it appeared to confirm the reluctance of successive Greek governments to pursue wealthy Greeks for tax evasion.

Mr Papaconstantinou, who negotiated Greece’s first €130bn bailout in 2010 by the EU and IMF, faces charges of breach of faith, tampering with an official document and abuse of office. A council of senior judges will be asked to confirm the charges and arrange for a trial by a special court.

“I absolutely reject all three charges,” Mr Papaconstantinou told parliament. “The political handling of a sensitive issue concerning confidential documents has been turned into a criminal offence . . . I have not benefited in any way . . . I am burdened with debts.”

Mr Papaconstantinou is accused of removing the names of three relatives from the original list on a computer disk he received from the French government after the Greek bailout got under way and copying the remaining names on a memory stick, which he then failed to hand over to SDOE, the financial police, for investigation.

He was expelled from the PanHellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok) and disowned by former prime minister George Papandreou, who took Greece into the bailout.

The USB stick was eventually sent to Antonis Samaras, the prime minister, by Evangelos Venizelos who succeeded Mr Papaconstantinou as finance minister and now serves as foreign minister and deputy premier in the governing coalition. The deception was revealed after French authorities provided a second copy of the list in December.

Q&A: The Lagarde list

The publication of a list of 2,000 Greeks with Swiss bank accounts that Athens had received from France caused a huge storm in Greece

Mr Papaconstantinou’s relatives – a cousin who works as a corporate lawyer and her husband, and another cousin’s husband who acted as a middleman in sales of weapons to the Greek navy – all denied wrongdoing. However, they may face charges of tax evasion following a special investigation by SDOE, according to a finance ministry official.

Lawmakers later on Tuesday debated controversial legislation to sack 15,000 civil servants by the end of 2014 as thousands of demonstrators shouted anti-austerity slogans in Syntagma square outside parliament.

Deputies from the leftwing Syriza party the main opposition, held up a banner outside the building saying, “Let’s fire the government.”

The main public sector unions, ADEDY and GSEE, staged a 24-hour strike on Tuesday to protest against the measures, shutting down government offices, state schools and public transport across the country. Demonstrators returned to the square in the evening to attend a concert and an all-night vigil.

“Dismissing civil servants is another step towards the collapse of public services,” said Elvira Avramopoulou, a healthcare worker preparing to spend the night outside the heavily guarded parliament.

With only a five-seat majority in the 300-member house, M Samaras and his deputy Mr Venizelos made last-minute tweaks to the bill to secure support from a handful of dissident lawmakers ahead of Wednesday night’s vote.

Analysts said the coalition partners, the centre right New Democracy party and the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok), would scrape a majority after deputies from both parties voted against a motion by Syriza to declare the civil service sackings as unconstitutional.

The legislation, which also includes sweeping reforms of the tax administration, must be in place as a condition for the EU and International Monetary Fund to release another €6.8bn tranche from Greece’s current €172bn bailout package.

Wolfgang Schaeuble, German finance minister, was due to make a one-day visit to Athens on Thursday to urge Greece to stay on track with reforms and announce a special bilateral aid package for cash-strapped Greek businesses.

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