NEWS

Controversial law means money stolen from the state can’t be returned

Two years after Greece?s politicians first announced that measures would be adopted to locate citizens and public sector employees involved in scamming the state in what was to be the first step in cracking down on rampant corruption, and after successive declarations that anyone who dips a hand in the honey pot will be punished, there is still no law regulating how money can be returned to the state once it has been pilfered.

As ridiculous as it may sound, a law drawn up in 2010 allowing individuals who have committed serious financial crimes such as fraud and embezzlement to return the money — or a portion of the money — taken and to receive in return lighter judicial treatment, expressly excludes people who have embezzled from or defrauded the state.

Article 17 of Law 3904 clearly states that the terms of the law are not applicable ?in the event that the felony (fraud etc) has been committed against the public administration, legal entities of the state and local authority organizations.? Anyone arrested — and there are more and more every month — on charges of defrauding the state cannot, by law, return any of the booty as a way of improving their fate as deemed by the courts.

On the other hand, the lack of incentive that could be provided by offering leniency in return for the embezzled money makes it harder for people involved either directly or indirectly in such activities to come forward and confess to their own role in defrauding the state or turn in any accomplices they may have. This lack of incentives also means that investigators often end up with just one part of the story, as they cannot find witnesses to come forward to corroborate their suspicions or widen the breadth of an investigation, and the darker recesses of many scams remain unexplored.

Article 17, which limits damages to private parties, has deprived the cash-strapped state of a mechanism through which to get back some of the money that has been pilfered at a time that is critical for its financial survival. Legal experts also say that delays in bringing wrongdoers to justice simply compound the problem and stoke the distrust of ordinary citizens in the state itself, making them even more reluctant to press charges against public sector workers or to come forward as witnesses.

The argument in favor of Article 17 is that people involved in defrauding the state should not expect any leniency and should be punished to the fullest extent of the law. However, this argument does not make up for the fact that there are no measures for the money to actually be returned in one way or another.

A series of recent cases of embezzlement that have come to light, however — such as the Kallithea IKA case and the number of people receiving disability benefits they were not entitled to, as well as allegations made recently by a pair of businessmen who said they had to bribe high-ranking officials in the Development Ministry to get a simple request processed — have caused serious concern among judicial authorities regarding the absence of legislation for such cases and of a fast-track mechanism to expedite them through the courts.