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December 3, 2012 7:35 pm
The unfolding scandal of the so-called “Lagarde list” of Greeks with Swiss bank accounts took a bizarre twist on Monday after a Greek-Israeli financier revealed an account previously reported to be linked with the mother of a former Greek prime minister belonged to a mutual fund investing in hedge funds.
Sabby Mionis, the financier, said in a letter to the Greek state news agency that no member of the family of ex-premier George Papandreou was connected with the account in question: “I have never met Mrs Papandreou or any other member of the family.”
“The fund’s cash was deposited in a custodian bank, in this case HSBC . . . No physical person was the owner of this account.” The fund was listed on the Irish stock exchange, Mr Mionis said.
Hours later, Nikos Lekkas, the deputy director of SDOE, the Greek financial police, flatly denied making the allegation against 89-year-old Margaret Papandreou, after people involved in the case said it had been included in a report handed to parliament last week by the country’s senior financial prosecutor.
“I never named anyone allegedly involved with the so-called Lagarde list,” said Mr Lekkas. “This is clear from my sworn testimony to the prosecutor, which is part of the file that went to parliament.”
The prosecutor was investigating possible tax evasion and money laundering by almost 2,000 Greek account-holders at HSBC’s Geneva branch, among them prominent shipowners, members of family-owned business groups and a handful of politicians. Both Papandreous have strongly denied any wrongdoing.
Mrs Papandreou, the widow of the late socialist premier Andreas Papandreou, George’s father, and founder of a leftwing Greek feminist group, has threatened legal action against To Vima and Proto Thema, the two independent Greek weeklies that published the allegation.
The list of possible tax evaders is named after Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund and former French finance minister, who sent it to her then counterpart George Papaconstantinou in 2010. Its publication last month by Hot Doc, a Greek investigative magazine, has embarrassed members of the Greek elite who traditionally keep funds abroad as a hedge against political upheavals in Athens.
Mr Papaconstantinou said the $550m account was held by an employee of a shipping firm on behalf of her employer, according to an initial investigation by SDOE.
A former colleague of Mr Mionis said Maria Panteli, the accountholder named on the list, handled the fund’s cash deposited with HSBC. “There was nothing unusual in this arrangement . . . She was a longstanding employee cleared to sign cheques,” he said.
The former colleague said Mr Mionis managed the mutual fund on behalf of EFG International, part of a Geneva-based group controlled by the Latsis family with interests in banking, oil-refining, shipping and real estate.
The coalition government under Antonis Samaras, the centre-right premier, has launched an unprecedented crackdown against tax evasion by wealthy Greeks in an effort to boost revenues and soften the anger felt by ordinary people facing fresh austerity measures as the country enters a sixth year of recession. But the probes by SDOE have not so far resulted in trials or convictions of prominent tax evaders.
The prosecutor’s report will be formally handed to Greek lawmakers preparing to debate whether Mr Papaconstantinou and his successor Evangelos Venizelos, now leader of the socialist party, a coalition partner, should face a parliamentary inquiry and possible criminal charges for failing to ensure the Lagarde list was fully investigated in 2010-11.
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