BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungary’s chief prosecutor has asked parliament to lift the immunity of a ruling-party lawmaker who is suspected of corruption involving public funds, a move the legislator himself said he would support.
Prosecution spokesman Geza Fazekas told reporters Roland Mengyi was suspected of an attempted misuse of public funds and abuse of the powers of his office. The case involves five other suspects, none of whom hold public office, Fazekas said.
Shortly afterwards, Mengyi issued a statement that said, in full: “I will cooperate with the authorities fully and ask Parliament to lift my immunity in order to clarify the reality as soon as possible.” Mengyi has previously denied wrongdoing, according to a statement by the ruling party, Fidesz, published in local media.
Since coming to power in 2010, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government has redrawn hundreds of laws and taken control of state media and several public institutions, which critics say has eroded democratic checks and balances.
Hungary’s ranking has gradually deteriorated in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index in the past years, dropping to 50th in a 2015 survey from 47th a year earlier, on a par with central European peers Slovakia and Croatia.
A Median survey published last month in the weekly HVG showed 60 percent of people believed corruption in Hungary was “systemic” and centrally-driven. Some two-thirds suspected the ruling elite of foul play to a “large” or “very large” degree.
Prosecutors say Mengyi said he would use his influence as a lawmaker to ensure that a program devoted to social co-operatives received 500 million forints ($1.83 million) worth of European Union funds when it was launched.
The prosecutors said Mengyi had asked for 5 million forints as a “constitutional expense” to ensure that the co-operatives involved would receive the funds and for a further 5 million forints after they got the funding.
“The parties involved had no intention of implementing the objective of the application,” a statement by the prosecutors said. “On the contrary, their intention was to use part of the awarded funds to boost their private wealth.”
The two offences Mengyi is suspected of being involved in are punishable by up to eight and 10 years in prison.
Under the scheme developed by the suspects, prosecutors said the social co-operatives involved would have received just 10 percent of the funds awarded. The rest would be paid as kickbacks to the suspected ring leaders.
The prosecutors said in the end no funds were lost under the program, because applications were rejected for formal errors and missing criteria. Mengyi had also paid back the 5 million forints through an intermediary, the prosecutors said.
Fazekas added that two suspects were detained and three more were under house arrest. Prosecutors can quiz Mengyi as a suspect only if parliament lifts his immunity.
PM Orban’s chief of staff, Janos Lazar, told a weekly news conference that lawmakers would probably lift Mengyi’s immunity after the MP had also requested this to happen.
“I will of course vote in favor of lifting his immunity, no doubt. The situation must be cleared, this is in the interests of my fellow lawmaker, Fidesz as well as the government,” Lazar said.
He said the government launched an internal probe to establish whether any decisions about the contents of the funding program in question had been unduly influenced.
Reporting by Gergely Szakacs; Editing by Larry King and Toby Chopra