Translation of “The tentacles of Habony’s creditor extend everywhere” published by daily online index.hu on November 28th, 2016.
He helps Árpád Habony out with a loan for twenty million, gets mixed up in a spying caper that brings down a party chairman, and helps Csányi with multi-billion-forint business deals. He looks towards Moscow but lives the life of a western aristocrat. All the while, he surrounds himself with young people, to nurture an elite then maintain contact with them in important positions. This is a portrait of András Tombor, an all-round behind-the-scenes Fidesz man.
The legendary tune from the film The Godfather suddenly started playing at one of the Mathias Corvinus College’s (MCC) autumn parties. The DJ’s unexpected improvisation marked the arrival of the founder of the college, András Tombor. Although intended as a joke, college directors later told him in a friendly chat that he should not have done it. On the other hand, it was actually not far from the picture that has formed of relations between Tombor and the MCC.
The college that he operates seems to be one of the steadiest points in the work of Tombor, who appears in the press surrounded by the whiff of scandal in seemingly quite unconnected affairs, and moves constantly in Fidesz circles. Although it receives less attention than his other projects, behind the scenes it is one of his most productive investments – not just for the students, but for himself as well.
The value of this cannot be measured in money.
Tombor, who came from an anti-communist family that had been deprived of its property, used a donation from his father to set up the MCC in 1996. The college now offers training to the most gifted students, from high-school age to post-graduate trainee executives, and Tombor himself makes no secret of his thoughts on elite training. He makes all first-year students read the novel Alamut [by Vladimir Bartol], and it is difficult to read the official foreword without it bringing to mind certain analogies.
“In the northern hill country of Persia in the 11th century stands the impenetrable eagle’s nest that is the Alamut fortress. It is from here that the castellan Hassan bin Sabah, disappointed in his faith, launched a holy war against the Persian empire. The philosopher, sharp witted and uncommonly erudite, was helped by a small band of well trained fighters, religious instructors and scholars. Their task was to tutor two dozen talented young volunteers in the natural sciences, mathematics, music, literature and verse. The youths also received tough military training. Their every step was guided by the teachings of the Koran. They would become bin Sabah’s followers, carrying out his plans and spreading his movement throughout the Islamic world.”
“He consciously built a network of connections,” said one student. The point of the elite training college, described by all those we spoke to as working to a western model and to western standards, is to offer classes to students from renowned universities – Közgáz, ELTE, CEU and Pázmány – that would otherwise be unavailable to them.
It is another matter that – since it is not the students who organise this and there is no standard student council – famous colleges do not want to admit the MCC among their ranks. So much so that, because of the above, it does not appear on the quasi-official InterKoll list of professional colleges. At around the time it started, the competent committee voted down a request for affiliation, and they never tried again.
“They do not want to broaden or improve the curriculum, there is no ongoing thought about what and how things should be done, no organisation from below. Nor do they have to raise the operating costs themselves,” said a student at the MCC. Yet there is no tension between MCC students and “the rest”, and outsiders recognise that students receive quality training in the Mathias college. The best professionals, lawyers, company directors and government officials lecture there, and the college invites the most important and interesting participants from the public discourse.
Until 2009, Tombor showed up in person at every half-yearly appraisal, and although he has since stopped, he often holds discussions in which he talks about his life and plans, where he accepts all questions and he even responds in connection with the news reports of scandals affecting him. (More about exactly which ones later).
He has good, informal relations with his students and is ready to help them. Several spoke of how, when necessary, he would use his Porsche SUV to ferry students from one place to another. He takes students every October to his own winery in Tokaj for an OcTomborFest”, and in the college “you can say anything about anything, there is no ideological pressure”. And the students do not forget the atmosphere of trust that this engenders.
“He uses his connections, of course,” was the consensus among students. MCC alumni go on to occupy important positions in the Constitutional Court, Foreign Ministry, or middle management at multinationals. Tombor consciously gathers together his graduates so that “outside the walls of the college, often outside of Hungary, too, they can maintain their MCC identity and nurture close, lasting connections with each other and their alma mater”.
Besides company directors and political players, students – and Tombor – are also on good terms with journalists, with many famous journalists holding media classes for them.
Fidesz, billboard, Csányi
While still young, Tombor started high up, close to the Orbán government, joining in 2000 the security policy advisory group in the prime minister’s office, led by the then ambassador to Washington Réka Szemerkényi. Although the outgoing Fidesz government cemented him in a high official position, he chose after the change of government to immerse himself in the business world.
As a one-time pupil at a Benedictine school, he joined another former student, the late János Soproni, in his successful billboard company, Multireklám. Through his good, self-confident work, he became the firm’s negotiator and lobbyist. According to one source, his task was essentially to approach local governments so that Multireklám could set up lots of citylight billboards. “Tombor was always good at this,” one acquaintance recalled. We spoke to many people for this article, who all mentioned that, from the first moment, Tombor was able to wrap people around his finger with his charm, manners, knowledge and personality.
Tombor did this so skilfully that he gradually took over the company from Sopronyi, and in 2004 he negotiated the sale of Multireklám. Two major players came forward: Sándor Csányi and Lajos Simicska. Tombor chose Csányi in the end; he allegedly did not appreciate Simicska’s aggressive negotiating style. Tombor later told the college’s students that this meant he was in the doghouse for a long time with Fidesz, or, more precisely, Simicska – which meant the same thing at the time.
Speaking to his students, Tombor described the billboard business as a defining point in his life, and not for nothing: they say in professional circles that when Csányi sold the firm on to the Austrians for the astonishing sum of 75 million euros, or 20 billion forints, a portion of this money went to its director and chief negotiator. A quarter of the money went to two offshore companies, behind which it is rumoured in the trade that Tombor and his business partner Ferenc Kiss-Szölgyémi lie to this day. Csányi could be eternally grateful for this little piece of billboard business: the OTP director told a small farewell gathering that he had made five times his money on the sale. It is perhaps not by chance that Csányi helped the college with a “significant sum”, so that the bank is mentioned under the “partners” menu point.
For a time, Tombor disappeared from the billboard business to do completely different things. He used part of the money to set up a winery in Tokaj (specifically, in Erdőbénye), which he named Bardon after his mother. More on this later.
The secretive two billion
He also became active in the Ybl Club, founded in 2007 by István Stumpf. Stumpf gathered around him talented right-wing youth, some say in order to build opposition to Orbán, who had by then lost two elections, while another reading is that he simply wanted to build business connections on the right-wing. Csányi became the club’s patron, along with the director of MVM, István Kocsis. The latter name would crop up again in Tombor’s story years later.
It is unclear to this day whether the group tried to break up the MDF (Hungarian Democratic Forum) in 2008 as a sign of loyalty to Orbán and a favour to Fidesz, or whether it wanted to take over the party in order to build a right-wing opposition. What can be read from the case is this: according to a telephone conversation, András Tombor commissioned UD Zrt – which had done a lot of work for Csányi’s companies – to gather information to discredit Ibolya Dávid, then, having brought her down, place his own man, Kornél Almássy, at the head of the party.
“A big businessman called me and said András Tombor had asked him for a donation because he wanted to raise 2 billion forints to bring down Ibolya Dávid” – recalled a former MDF politician, according to whom the UD story that emerged after the phone call thus came as no surprise. Afterwards, Tombor had one more try, and went through the whole of the MDF to try to have Almássy withdraw his candidacy.
Our source added that this was the second time in his life that he had heard of András Tombor. “I first encountered the name in 2000, when there was a by-election somewhere in Borsod County, and we also supported the Fidesz candidate. He was invited to the same campaign event along with Orbán’s adviser and myself, too.”
The two billion also came out in the subsequent trials in connection with the affair. Péter Boross said as a witness that he himself had proposed in autumn 2008 that Almássy withdraw his candidacy for party president, because the young politician had promised exactly that sum to the party, but had not revealed where the money was coming from.
Andris, the regular customer
However, several of those we interviewed drew attention to the fact that among the UD Zrt recordings that were made public in 2008 but are no longer obtainable, there were several that indicated Tombor had close connections with the security firm. “UD had also been set on the legal practice that represented OMV in the dispute between OMV and Mol. In a UD discussion between the two company directors, one could hear that if there’s no one else, we’ll send over Andris,” a source told us. What struck someone else in the voice recording was the UD people saying to Tombor that it was no problem if he did not pay immediately, “since he is a regular customer”. Both of them alleged, independently of one another but without knowledge of specifics, that, given the UD Zrt conversations and Tombor’s actions at the time, they could not imagine he did not receive some kind of professional training from the secret services.
Also indicative of the mystery surrounding Tombor, as four of our interview subjects mentioned, is that he lived or lives abroad, although their information differed as to where: we heard Italy, Dubai and England. According to his students, this is ruled out by the extent to which he is present at the MCC.
In 2009, Tombor and Szölvényi-Nagy, whom he knew from the billboard business, bought into a cleaning and private security firm, stayed there for a good year. On the basis of company data and news reports from the time, he did not make much of a splash. Then in 2010 came the turning point: the change of government. As Tombor allegedly told his students, after just eight weeks he finally received support from the Fidesz government, too.
“He moved into a higher gear, and spread his tentacles into more areas.”
Our sources did not recall the precise time, but around 2010, András Tombor took part. purely as an outside guest, in a polo event in Tabajd, at the invitation of a major corporate sponsor. He liked the sport so much that he got involved himself, and not just in any way. In 2010, he posed for the international polo magazine PQ with his partner (who has since become his wife and with whom he has children) at a competition in Dubai. In 2011, he set up his own outfit under the name Bardon Team (bearing the surname of his mother, Beatrix Bardon), then spoke after a Dubai tournament as “the leader of the Hungarian team”. In 2012, the Australians wrote to him as the president of the Hungarian Polo Association. There are many references on the internet to him playing in Dubai, England, Spain, Switzerland and Italy.
An interviewee involved in polo said the terms “Hungarian team” and “Hungarian selection” mislead the layman, as there is no such thing, and polo should not be thought of as operating like other sports. It is recognised in polo that professional players, mainly Argentine, can be hired for a tournament. Playing ability is measured by the so-called handicap system – the number of points a person has is, by and large, the number of thousands of euros he can demand for a tournament. The registration fee for the test can run to several thousand euros alone, so along with the hiring of horses and riders, the cost of such a tournament for a team captain – that is, for Tombor – is around 20 thousand euros, or more than six million forints.
Tombor’s two regular partners, according to information on the internet, are the Dubai club manager Martin Valent and his trainer Matias Machado. Both have a handicap of five, and so ask 5,000 euros for a competition. When we asked in polo circles why Tombor became the president of the Hungarian association, we were told that the organisation hoped Tombor would bring money, and, above all, “if this is on someone’s business card, it opens a lot of doors for him”.
“He can sit down to dinner on a competition weekend with foreign aristocrats to whom he would otherwise have no access.”
In the end, Tombor did not bring any money to the association, and so he quietly left his post without any pressure. In the wake of our inquiries, the Bardon Team Facebook page was suspended, and Tombor’s photograph was removed from the association’s page and can now only be found in the archive.
BKV published in November 2014 a tender for the renovation of Metro line number 3. It is very likely that few at the time suspected what a stormy affair the transport company was opening. The eventual winner, after an Estonian bidder was excluded, was the Russian firm Metrowagonmash. Several of our sources noted that Tombor had been a lobbyist for the Russian firm at the time. This is, of course, very difficult to prove, but what is certain is that Tombor’s lawyer was a certain Géza Márton Illés. He acted in the name of several companies that can be linked to Tombor (for example, Morando and the Tokaj Wine Region Development Council, and he is also the service agent for the foreign firm behind Tombor’s private winery). Illés was also at the MCC, as appears on his LinkedIn page and one of the MCC’s year books.
And according to this document, he was the legal representative of the tender winner, Metrowagonmash.
According to our sources, it is no coincidence that Dávid Vitézy, not known for being particularly pro-Russian, ceased to be head of the BKK (Centre for Budapest Transport).
It is not clear how Tombor found himself on the BKV firing range, but it is worth noting that
- foreign affairs souces place him among the ranks of the Moscow-friendly, and István Kocsis, who has good connections with Russia, launched and expedited the whole renovation project as director of BKV. It was he who supported the Ybl Club while director of MVM, and, like Tombor, he is on good terms with Csányi.
- BKK’s former IT manager and now adviser Zoltán Jutasi, is linked to Tombor in many ways: they are both in Morando’s sphere of interests, and both their names came up in connection with the UD Zrt affair.
In 2015, Tombor joined a general contracting firm in Esztergom, EVB Kft. – just at the time when that family firm, which had been operating for 20 years, won two public contracts from the capital city (1, 2), while neither before or after did they bid in state or local government tenders. The tender writer was BKK-Közút, whose director was Tombor’s old acquaintance, the former MDF politician Kornél Almássy. Our sources tell us that Tombor’s aim was to make money with the company through construction work after winning public tenders, but when this “did not come off” with EVB, they parted company.
Opposition sources in the town hall say Tombor was behind the extraordinary general meeting called on 22 December 2015, where they voted to dismantle Mahir citylight billboards. In this way, Tombor returned to the billboard market that he had abandoned many years earlier, annoying Lajos Simicska.
Tombor bought vineyards in Tokaj in 2006, and was already proudly producing outstanding wines at the Bardon Winery (the Facebook profile, just as for the similarly named polo team, was suspended following our inquiries). Tombor does not advertise his winery in the region. When we went to Erdőbénye, the locals said the cellars were closed to the public and they did not know the owner beyond the fact that he was from Budapest. Tombor brings MCC students here each year to party; the villagers, from what they said, were unaware of this. According to an article from 2012, he had 8.5 hectares spread over three vineyards, while in 2014 they wrote about 9 hectares. We spoke to someone who, while not knowing Tombor personally, was able to say that Bardon now had “six vineyards in the area”, which was a good amount and, “you can start something with that”.
We telephoned the technical director of the winery, who said Tombor was happy to pick young people to run his business, and that there was much in Erdőbénye “that he decides on, like what kind of paving stones go where during the renovation”. We agreed that he would take us round the property, but the following day he cancelled the meeting, citing the grape harvest.
Tombor later took on national-level tasks in relation to the wine trade. He is the president of the Tokaj Wine Region Development Council, which was established in 2014 and began operating in 2015, and became head of the supervisory board of the state-owned Tokaj Kereskedőház Kft, and began renewing relations between Tokaj and the state. According to one source, Tombor told a small gathering that this was a good opportunity to “get hold of Orbán again”. In the end, the large scale plans did not come to fruition, and talking to local winemakers one has the impression that they did not feel the benefit of any development and were disappointed in Tombor, who had not really understood what the locals needed, and then left.
A billion from the state, millions for Habony
Lately, Tombor has found himself in the media for two reasons. One is that, according to investigative reporting by Forbes, the Morando venture capital fund (linked to him and others) channelled large amounts of state money towards Tombor and, among others, his winery. The other is that, Árpád Habony, at the time of his NAV [state tax office] inquiry, said he made him a loan of 20 million forints. Tombor told MCC students who asked about the Morando affair that he was convinced it was an organised attempt to smear him, and that he had only bought into the company after the business deals in question. He brushed off the Habony loan story with a joke, giving no substantive explanation for it.
This latter is nevertheless interesting, since the press has seen Tombor more as someone who is close to [Minister Overseeing the Prime Minister’s Office] Lázár, which would not fit with his being friends with Habony. An acquaintance said that Tombor “essentially tries to get on with everybody, and tries to get the best from everybody”. In relation to such cases he clearly told the students that he despises journalists, about whom he says they write lies, then others copy them, so in the end it is as though he was a public figure, although he absolutely is not.
Meanwhile, the MCC is developing, and – although Tombor always tells students that they will not be trainee cadres, and the Socialist cabinet had tried in vain to push them into a corner before 2010 by launching court cases over the building – it has forged ever closer ties with the Fidesz government. He received support of 250 million in 2012, in 2014 (xls) and 300 million in 2016. He acquired more than 100 million forints (50 million here, 51 million here) from MNB [Hungarian National Bank] foundations, while the MET, mentioned in connection with politically connected business, looks for recruits among the students.
In additional to all this, the MCC, jointly with Századvég, last November founded the Migration Research Institute. This latter, according to our sources, was reluctantly accepted by MCC students, who do not know how it fits in with a truly non-political collegiate atmosphere. We also spoke to a professional researcher into migration, who said the institute had a professionally sound basis, and its materials were valid, but that the timing of its research and its leading questions were noticeable during the campaign. And – although at an entirely different level than with Nógrádi or Spöttle – it is undeniable that the government exploited the institute’s studies during the anti-immigrant campaign, our sources said.
Back to the billboards
And now where can we find András Tombor? Firstly, a legislative proposal was leaked that would regulate the billboard market and, after the initial question marks, envisages the sector such that French billboard firm DCDecaux, the successor to the erstwhile Multireklám, would be placed in a position where, for example, billboard areas would be prescribed at a maximum of 9 square metres, which would go well for western European firms used to 8 square metres. People working in the sector say Tombor has been seen lately around the company’s offices, and moreover, that BKK-Közút, led by Almássy, has a say in the billboard spaces on roadsides in the capital. An opposition politician in Budapest said that with this, and the already mentioned Mahir advertising pillar affair in the capital, Tombor had become Fidesz’s “person responsible for billboards”.
Secondly, Tombor recently told his students that he expects plastics to be the next big thing in business. Allegedly the future belongs to packing materials that are designed to break down within a week, a month or a year. We cannot know whether there is any connection, but in September, Tombor registered two new companies: Polymateria Hungary Kft, whose main activity is the manufacture of plastics, and its owner, the holding company Polymateria Invest Kft. Connections with the MCC also come across: the director of Polymateria Hungary is the college’s director, Zoltán Szalai.
Thirdly, we understand it is still an open question whether he will move into the online newspaper Mandiner. We know that the affair opened by Átlátszó a year and a half ago is not yet closed, and there has been no word from either side about standing down.
We tried to contact András Tombor through his secretary. He declined an offer to meet personally, and asked for our questions in writing, but we have since received no further response, either to them or to further requests.
The standpoint of the Migration Research institute
We asked the Migration Research institute what level of funding it operates with, and what influence Tombor exerts, either officially or unofficially, on its operations. We received the following response:
The Migration Research institute was set up in September 2005 through the cooperation and joint decision of the Századvég Foundation and the Tihány Foundation. The aim of the two founders was to create an intellectual workshop to help with complex approaches to research into and the understanding of migration – one the most important phenomena affecting Europe and Hungary in the 21st century – using the synergies between the two foundations, which represent Hungary’s most significant brains trust organisation and its citadel of elite training. In the interests of achieving the objective set out by the two founders, the Institute has, over the past year, undertaken extremely active scientific, professional and research activities, and contributed in a very tangible way to the development of the public discourse on the issue of migration. The Institute was not set up as a separate legal entity, but as an organisation differentiated by its function, on the basis of the agreement between the two founders, under which the two founders cover any arising costs from their own existing resources, without any additional funding for this purpose. The Institute’s headquarters is the Mathias Corvinus College – as can be read on the homepage. The researchers, naturally, also participate in the ongoing work of the college and Századvég. I received the commission to direct the Institute jointly from the directorates of the two founding bodies.
+1 strand: the Benedictines
In 2011, Tombor was elected for four years as deputy president of the Benedictine Students Association. There are many strands that link the association with the MCC. The general secretary of the students’ association is the Benedictine-schooled, later MCC graduate Gergely Deli, who speaks as the college’s deputy director. The MCC is the point of contact for the students’ association, which holds its meetings there. The constitutional lawyer István Kukorelli teaches at the MCC, and is also the president of the Benedictines. We have learned that Tombor strove to help the association during his deputy presidency, for example he sponsored one of its annual balls along with his winery. He later withdrew from his post citing other commitments, and the two sides parted on good terms.