Leaked EU audit shows Czech PM in conflict of interest: report

by Jan FLEMR
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Prime Minister Andrej Babis is suspected of abusing special EU small business subsidies to create his luxury Stork Nest resort and farm

A leaked European Commission audit has concluded that billionaire Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis has a conflict of interest as he still controls one of his country's largest companies, a Czech newspaper reported Tuesday.

The document also suggests that Babis's company should return some 451 million Czech crowns (17.6 million euros, $19.5 million) in EU and state subsidies that were paid out illegally.

The commission ordered the audit last year at the request of an anti-corruption watchdog and a Czech opposition party that questioned Babis's dual role and whether his sprawling Agrofert holding was entitled to receive hefty EU agricultural subsidies if he controlled it.

Babis, the fourth wealthiest Czech according to Forbes magazine, has denied any wrongdoing, saying he had transferred the Agrofert food, chemicals and media holding into two trust funds, as required by a new Czech conflict of interest law.

The leaked audit concluded otherwise.

"Andrej Babis is still the owner of the Agrofert holding and, since February 2017, of two trust funds which he directly controls," reads a Czech translation of the audit published by Denik N broadsheet on its website.

Babis "has a direct economic interest in the holding's success," the daily added.

According to the leaked audit all EU and state subsidies paid to Agrofert since February 9, 2017 when the conflict of interest law took effect, were illegal.

A defiant Babis insisted on Monday that "if the conclusion of the audit is not in harmony with what the Czech Republic claimed, Prague will certainly reject it."

"I cannot understand how the EC can dare to interpret Czech laws" on politicians with business interests, said Babis, who has defied repeated calls for his resignation.

The Slovak-born mogul has so far failed to reveal the contents of the audit which the European Commission has not made public.

- Slovak register -

Regional Development Minister Klara Dostalova, whose ministry is dealing with the report, said the Czech Republic had two months to comment on the audit.

Information published in beneficial ownership registers introduced across the EU last year as part of the bloc's drive against money laundering raised questions about Babis's continued role in business.

A register in Slovakia listed Babis as the beneficial owner of 37 Agrofert units while his wife Monika, who also sits on the board of both trust funds in charge of Agrofert, was listed as the beneficial owner of another 28.

Agrofert received EU subsidies worth 1.8 billion koruna (70 million euros, $78 million) in 2018 and 2.1 billion koruna in 2017, according to Czech media.

Czechs staged two mass protests this year, demanding Babis step down.

The demonstrations, in June and November, each drew a quarter-million people, making them the largest since Czechs shed communism in 1989.

Babis leads a minority coalition government comprised of his centrist populist ANO (YES) movement and the Social Democrats that relies on the tacit support of Communist Party lawmakers to survive in parliament.

Babis has denied any wrongdoing, saying he transferred the Agrofert food, chemicals and media holding into two trust funds, as required by a recent law -- but the leaked Commission audit concluded otherwise

Czechs have staged two mass protests this year, demanding Babis step down