Some view prosecution as a turning point, but past failures linger
The prosecution of former Central Bohemian Governor David Rath on corruption charges could prove a landmark in efforts to cleanse high-level politics, but observers and anti-corruption campaigners are bracing themselves for lengthy legal wrangling.
Rath’s attorneys have launched an effort to shift the case from Ústí prosecutor Lenka Bradáčová to Prague-based prosecutors, filing for a judicial review May 28.
“In the case of David Rath, we have serious evidence: money,” said Radim Bureš of Transparency International, an anti-corruption watchdog group. “Therefore, his defense is based on procedural steps. … This will be a huge legal battle.”
Rath was arrested May 14 carrying a wine box that contained 7 million Kč, according to police. The sting operation was orchestrated by a special unit charged with policing organized and financial crime, and it has since emerged that Rath had long been under surveillance. He and seven others are alleged to have mismanaged European Union funds and taken bribes in exchange for awarding public contracts. Rath is being held in Litoměřice prison after a judge in Ústí nad Labem ruled there was reasonable concern he may try to influence potential witnesses or flee.
One of the other alleged conspirators is the director of a hospital in Kladno, Central Bohemia, in one place where the larger case is tied to Rath, a doctor by trade. It is alleged a series of kickbacks were involved in a plan to renovate the hospital.
Related criminal activity is alleged to have happened in at least three regions, but Ústí prosecutors have led the charge, drawing praise from civil society groups. Efforts to move the case to a Prague prosecutor have sparked concern as the Prague office head, Vlastimil Rampula, carries the nickname “The Sweeper” in connection with a long-standing reputation for shelving prosecutions of high-level political figures.
“The Prague attorney’s office does not have the best reputation, and in many cases it blocked investigations of serious corruption cases rather than showing serious efforts to finish the cases,” Bureš said.
There remains hope the Rath case could foment greater change, including the revocation of a law that grants members of Parliament immunity from criminal prosecution.
“In its current form, the law cannot stay much longer. It is indefensible,” said Milan Znoj, a political scientist at Charles University. “I am sure a change will happen. There are some MPs and senators from the Civic Democrats [ODS] who are trying to avoid it, but it is clear change is inevitable.”
Parliament will vote on whether to officially lift Rath’s immunity from prosecution June 5. It is expected MPs will back a committee recommendation that Rath face charges, and he has few defenders in Parliament, even from within his former party, the Social Democrats (ČSSD).
“I understand Rath’s lawyers are trying to politicize the case, but it makes no sense,” Znoj said. “There is no political conspiracy. I don’t believe there will be any political pressure to dampen the case, because surely the coalition government has no interest in it, nor does the ČSSD seem interested in trying to influence the case.”
But even if Rath is successfully convicted on bribery charges and sentenced to the maximum 12 years, there continues to be concern that the system remains lacking. The outlandish nature of the Rath evidence, which included an additional 30 million Kč discovered hidden under the floorboards of his home, hardly has parallels in other equally serious corruption cases.
“The case of [former Prague Mayor Pavel] Bém and [lobbyist Roman] Janoušek is much more complicated,” Bureš said, referring to a series of leaked phone conversations that saw the lobbyist currying influence with the mayor.
“Since the recordings do not [conclusively] show anything criminal from the legal point of view, we can only assume,” Bureš continued. “I am sure they were released with the knowledge that there was nothing technically illegal on them. Still, in my view, there was abuse of power involved.”
In the wake of an April bribery conviction of Public Affairs party strongman Vít Bárta, there seems a growing optimism that prosecutors are increasingly assertive in taking on political corruption. Even still, most remain cautious amid memories of past political figures that have slipped through the cracks.
“It is possible to say the prosecutor’s office is making significant efforts to deal with corruption and political connections,” Znoj said. “It very much depends on whether it will continue with the same determination.”
– Filip Šenk and Klára Jiřičná contributed to this report.