What happens when a municipal government applies to the national government for funds to use towards a certain project, but then receives three times what it asked for, only to have a third party come in and tell them how to use the rest of the money?
The story of Kunszentmiklós
On Monday, 444.hu published a story recounting a municipal council meeting in Kunszentmiklós, a small town (population ~9,000) some 60km south of Budapest. The basis for this story are a government decree from December 2016 and minutes from a February 2017 municipal council meeting.
When the mayor, deputy mayor, and members of the municipal council convened on February 13th, 2017, they were called to order to discuss how to use HUF 450 million (USD 1.67 million) allocated to the town by the national government.
According to the minutes of the meeting, mayor Árpad Lesi kicked off the meeting by making a proposal.
Lesi said that the municipal council might heed the advice of a György Naszvadi, who had verbally recommended that two-thirds of the money be used to construct a photovoltaic power station next to the town’s industrial park. Lesi admitted that all he knew was that the power station should be owned by the municipality, nothing else.
So who is György Naszvadi? He was born in Kunszentmiklós in 1949 and has served in various capacities in the government since 1973. Most recently he was an undersecretary at the Ministry of National Economy (2010-2014). He holds no position in the municipality or the government. Kunszentmiklós locals describe Naszvadi as something of a mover and a shaker, a man who has done much to improve the town.
Naszvadi proposed the photovoltaic power station. This idea, however, presented the town council with two problems.
When the town originally asked the national government for the money, it only sought HUF 150 million (USD 550,000). The funds, as indicated in the government decree allocating them, were to be used to put solar panels on municipal buildings, repair roads, construct a storm sewer system, and build a bus stop and playground.
However, despite the HUF 150 million request, the national government allocated HUF 450 million to Kunszentmiklós – even though the municipality had never expressed any desire to build a photovoltaic power station next to its industrial park.
Secondly, as indicated in the minutes of the meeting, the councilors were hesitant to turn down Naszvadi’s recommendation (relayed through the mayor) or to even notify the government that they intended to modify their plans for the money, out of fear that the town might lose favor with the former undersecretary.
According to the minutes, what followed next was an exchange between the mayor, deputy mayor, and municipal councilors, in which the group tried tactfully to find a way to manage the situation.
One of the councilors was on the fence. He expressed his gratitude for the outstanding support Naszvadi had provided Kunszentmiklós in the past, but added that the townsfolk had been told the funds would be used for projects other than building a photovoltaic power station. Uncertain which option to choose, the councilor tried to balance his apprehensions by expressing how “very, very happy” he was with the Naszvadi role in managing the town’s affairs.
That’s when deputy mayor Péter Bábel chimed in, reminding the councilors that tough decisions must be made, even if they were the wrong decisions. The decisions must be made. That is why they were there.
The back and forth between councilors, the mayor, and deputy mayor continued until the end of the meeting, when one councilor asked whether Naszvadi would be upset if the proposal were not supported.
Naszvadi would never deal with them again, mayor Lesi responded.
Another councilor then explained that, while the proposal wasn’t right, they had no choice but to accept.
The issue (of notifying the government of their intent to use the additional funds to build a photovoltaic power station) was put to a vote and adopted. The entire meeting lasted 25 minutes. And with that the fate of more than a million dollars was decided.
The criminal complaint
After reading the story on 444.hu, Együtt (Together) chairman Péter Juhász filed a criminal complaint with authorities on grounds that – based on the article which drew entirely on the minutes from the municipal council meeting – there was strong suspicion that a misappropriation of funds had taken place.
According to the criminal complaint, the minutes of the meeting indicated that members thought the decision to build a photovoltaic power station was unnecessary and the project ran counter to the municipality’s plans.
Juhász was then summoned to appear at the Kecskemét police department (an hour’s drive south of Budapest) to explain why he had filed a criminal complaint. Feeling this did not warrant a trip to Kecskemét, Juhász explained that the basis for his criminal complaint could be found on 444.hu and in the minutes of the municipal council meeting. Still, the police insisted on talking to him. In Kecskemét.
Juhász drove down, and police asked him questions they could have easily asked over the phone. He says the investigating officer claimed that the prosecutor in charge insisted that a face-to-face interview take place with the person who filed the complaint, even though the interview could have taken place by phone or at a police precinct office in Budapest.
According to Juhász, dragging someone who files a criminal complaint across the country is a tactic used to impose a chilling effect on those who dare bring politically sensitive issues to the attention of law enforcement authorities.
A few days later, Juhász and members of his Együtt party drove down to Kunszentmiklós to raise the attention of locals about the HUF 300 million photovoltaic power station. With pre-written criminal complaints in hand, Együtt’s volunteers walked around the city square and asked local residents whether they
- have heard about plans to build a photovoltaic power station,
- know that György Naszvadi is the one who calls the shots in the area, and
- would be interested in filing a criminal complaint in the matter (11 people actually signed on the spot).
We accompanied Juhász to Kunszentmiklós and even met with mayor Árpad Lesi at the local cafe. Lesi refused to answer any questions regarding the municipal council meeting.
Juhász says he is curious to see whether the police will summon any of the local residents who signed the criminal complaints for an interview.