Meet Attila Várhegyi, Hungary's dark lord of public media

September 4, 2016

Varhegyi

“He very much believed in himself, that he had power, and he immediately dove head first into the dark pits of politics.”

“He agreed to undertake the mudslinging. The reason he was able to get close to the MTVA money trough was because he had been at it a long time and got to know the important players and political movers over the years. Now he can divert campaign and other funds by terribly overpricing everything and seeing to it that only his friends get contracts. You don’t need experts or a real CEO here. Because of the Szolnok matter, Várhegyi is little more than a political skeleton with nothing to lose.”

Translation of Ágnes Lampé’s article entitled “The Lord of Public Media” (“A közmédia ura”) appearing in the August 25th, 2016 edition of Hungarian print weekly 168óra (pp. 11-13).

Although officially only an advisor to MTVA (Hungary’s media service supporter and asset manager fund – tran.) in reality he decides on every supplier, payment, hiring and appointment. Because of his conviction and suspended sentence, he stayed in the background for a long time working on Fidesz financial matters.  However, after G-Day (February 6, 2015, the day Fidesz oligarch Lajos Simicska publicly fell out with Viktor Orbán – tran.), Orbán entrusted him—albeit hidden in a disguise—with overseeing the HUF 80 billion (USD 300 million) public media budget.  He would not have found a better person for the task even if he had been looking.

“Bag man,” “money and silk cord bearer,” “the black man of Fidesz,” “the executor” — these and other descriptions are how Attila Várhegyi’s acquaintances describe the current lord of public media.  They say he is tough, persistent and worships money.  The former mayor of Szolnok was convicted for soliciting bribes, but Viktor Orbán did not let go of his hand.  In fact, after hibernating for many years, he recently came to play a new important role:  he handles the HUF 84 billion allotted to MTVA (Hungarian public television).

Várhegy was born on October 5th, 1963 in Siklós.  He got his diploma in 1987 at the Gyula Juhász Teaching College, and then taught at the Szeged University for a year.  He later worked at a primary school and then at the vocational school for airplane mechanics and technicians.  Then with a large leap he joined the Fidesz Szolnok county regional Coordination Office.  By 1990 he was the deputy mayor of Szolnok. After 1991 he was mayor.  An acquaintance says “he very much believed in himself, by which I mean that he was powerful, and he immediately dove head first into the dark pits of politics.” There was no question he would run for reelection in the 1994 municipal election, but for the election there wasn’t enough money either in the city’s cash desk or in the Szolnok Fidesz organization which was in opposition at that time.  Várhegyi undertook to obtain money.  From that time on—as our sources put it—“there was no stopping him, nothing was dear to him.”  He solicited material contributions from companies in exchange for political support,  recruiting and using everyone and everything.

In December 1996 the Pest County Head Prosecutor’s office indicted nine people on 22 criminal counts, among them Várhegyi.  Another aspect of the case involved the sale of real estate.  Várhegyi was accused of unlawfully exercising a right belonging to the city council and causing HUF 192 million (~USD 1 million) in damages to Szolnok: in exchange for bribes he sold downtown sites at below price to companies which, among other things, supported his campaign.  The prosecutors indicted him for especially large material damage caused by malfeasance. The case, which lasted for seven years, was not good for Fidesz.  But Orbán retained Várhegyi, who was given a position.  From 1998 until 2001—according to our sources—he jokingly took the title of cultural undersecretary at the Ministry for National Culture and Heritage.

In 2001 Várhegyi was convicted by the first-level court for malfeasance.  He appealed, simultaneously resigning his post reportedly at Orbán’s insistence.  He justified this on the grounds that “he did not want to be a moral burden to the government.”  At the same time he announced that he was not withdrawing from public life, and that he would remain the president of the Fidesz caucus.  In 2002 a legally forcible judgement was handed down and Várhegyi was given a one-year suspended sentence for especially large material damage caused by malfeasance.  Among other things, the court found that the Fidesz organization and Várhegyi had taken bribes “in a manner contrary to law in a manner that was non-transparent and unaccountable.”  With this judgement Várhegyi became the first member of parliament to be convicted of a crime after the (1989) system change.  But there was still no question of him withdrawing from politics.  Orbán valued the determination and reliability of his cadre. The prime minister gave him a new position: he became party director, and, next to campaign manager Antal Rogán, he became the Fidesz campaign director.  He organized the larger events of 2006’s rather expensive campaign as Orbán confidante.  Unfortunately, they lost the 2006 election, and Orbán was supposedly disappointed in Várhegyi as well—this was what was needed in order for him to leave Fidesz and withdraw from public life.  His position was taken over by the current party director and deputy chairman, Gábor Kubatov.

Várhegyi tried his luck as an advertising expert.  In 2006 he founded companies: Prestige Média, which would later become well known, and Myself Consulting Kft.

His orders came from politics. From 2007 he dealt with Fidesz local government.  He won, among others, a HUF 27 million public tender from Hódmezővásárhely, run at the time by (current Minister Overseeing the Office of the Prime Minister-tran.) János Lázár to market the city for ten months.  Two companies bid for the work, but only Várhegyi’s bid was ruled valid.  He also gave marketing and business advice to Echo TV and Magyar Hírlap owner Gábor Széles until March 2008.

His career took a turn with the 2009 campaign in Pécs which he jointly ran with Gábor Kubatov. The death of the previous mayor, Péter Tasnádi, resulted in a by-election in which the MSZP candidate, Katalin Szili, who was favored to win, enjoying the support of SZDSZ and MDF, was surprisingly defeated by the Fidesz candidate Zsolt Páva.

Páva got two-thirds of the votes, thereby opening the gates to Orbán to destroy one of the bastions of the leftwing.

The success elevated Várhegyi’s significance.  Even though previously he had not been left without work, after that he was given a series of good paying advisory tasks.  Among his clients were the Széchenyi Program Office, the municipal government of Pécs, Szigtvár, Kiskunfélegyháza, and Érd.  In 2009 his company had revenues of HUF 149 million (USD 745,000).  In 2010 he invoiced HUF 370 million (USD 1.35 million).

Várhegyi worked for the Fidesz parliamenary fraction as well.  In 2010 the local government of Hódmezővásárhely concluded  a HUF 96 million (USD 48,000), five-year contract with his company to develop and implement the city’s marketing strategy.

And there was an important change: at that time he started working for public media. His company also developed a marketing strategy for MTVA, and of course provided advice.

In 2012 MTVA announced that in the future Várhegyi would be helping with its communication and that it had engaged his company, Prestige Média Kft.  Várhegyi told MTI the engagement was a great honor and great challenge for him.  He said that over a six-month period he intended to provide MTVA with 21st-century solutions.  Spokesperson Ágnes Cserháti noted that it had contacted numerous agencies in the interest of finding cost-effective solutions, but that as Prestige Média gave the best offer,  MTVA had decided to work with Várhegyi’s company.

On the basis of the MTVA engagement, in 2012 and 2013, at a cost of HUF 7.2 million (USD 30,000), Várhegyi planned and directed “complex informational project to measure viewership and listenership of the public media service programs”.

MTVA last concluded a contract with Prestige Média last October for HUF 1.3 million a month plus VAT for marketing communications and consultation.

(Investigative journalism online) Direkt 36 discovered that one of MTVA’s companies, Új Média and Teletext Kft., in May of 2014 spent HUF 120 million (USD 480,000) on domain names.  From this amount, it purchased 110 internet websites and domains from Magyar Hïradó Kft., a company majority owned by Várhegyi’s family members.  Since most of the domains contained the name of a given city and ended in “hirado.hu”, public media could have obtained the domain names very inexpensively or even for free. Public media explained that the HUF 120 million order was warranted as the concept fit into its content development strategy.

Other companies tied to Várhegyi in the past several years were paid fees of at least HUF 90 million (USD 325,000) by Új Média Kft. and MTVA.

Várhegyi infiltrated public media more and more.  However he did not have the right to make decisions. At that time he was regarded as Orbán’s “silk cord bearer”.  And he is mentioned as being the person behind the Origo scandal.  By way of background, the portal, a client of Prestige Média, had started investigating trips made by former Hódmezővásárhely mayor János Lázár, but in 2014 just before the elections this became more and more awkward for the government.  Moreover, the sale of Origo caused an unexpected complication because its owner, Telekom, concluded a billion forint business with the government at that time.  Várhegyi is known to have played a serious role in getting the portal to let go of the Lázár matter.  The editor-in-chief and his deputy were both sent away.

By the way Origo’s CEO at that time was Miklós Vaszily, who today is the acting CEO of MTVA.  About him later.

And now an important digression.

It was decided within Fidesz to completely restructure Hungarian public media long before 2010.  The plenipotentiary director of Fidesz’s media policies and Viktor Orbán’s confidante, Annamária Szalai, was responsible for working out the concept.  Many years prior to that she had “accidentally entered the media field”, and anyway had always wanted to be a member of parliament and a “real politician.” But before she could complete her work, Orbán asked her to remain in this field.  Annamária Szalai remained, but saw media almost exclusively as a political means.

Former MTV editor-in-chief and InfoRádio founder Péter Heltai was the one who worked out the restructuring of public media.  Our sources tell us that Heltai performed excellent work and submitted a well thought out, detailed material. Had this been implemented, then public media would be in a very different place than it is now. Except Annamária Szalai became sick and died.  It is said her last visitor at the hospital was Orbán, with whom she maintained a close friendship.  Orbán respected her request that her successor be MTVA deputy CEO István Böröcz.

In the meantime, it turned out that Böröcz had been recruited by the secret police on May 24, 1989 and given the cover name “Nádasdy.” The material that appeared on the internet indicates that he undertook the assignment not out of patriotism but for money.  When former Magyar Nemzet editor-in-chief Gábor Liszkay’s person, Mónika Karas, was put in charge of the National Media and Broadcasting Authority (NMHH), she demanded Böröcz’s unconditional departure.  Böröcz left  and in his place was appointed deputy CEO László Zsolt Szabó.

Returning to Attila Várhegyi, who was more and more at home in public media and continuously “boasted” that he was overseeing developments on Orbán’s behalf and was in direct contact with him.  In fact,  László Zsolt Szabó’s appointment took place with his recommendation and “permission.”

Meanwhile in Feburary 6th, 2015, G-day took place, fundamentally redrawing the map of media power relations.

The former inspector of everything, Lajos Simicska, fell out with the Prime Minister, and out of favor as well.  Orbán presumably decided at that time to create several strong points in media similar to other areas.  This is how it came about that Árpad Habony and Andy Vajna came to preside over TV2, radio stations, and the Lokál daily/weekly newspapers, and Gábor Liszkay over Magyar Idők and KarcFM, with Lajos Simicska retaining his media empire of Hir TV, Heti Válasz, Lánchíd Rádio, and Magyar Nemzet.  And of course there was public media, where Várhegyi was finally given a free hand to “finally create order.”

The increasingly influential Várhegyi became László Zsolt Szabó’s boss, who did not last for long.  In August 2015 he departed.  True, things did not turn out badly for him:  by way of compensation he was appointed ambassador to New Zealand.

Várhegyi once again proved himself worthy of the “executor” title, firing everybody he needed to:  companies tied to Simicska, suppliers, indeed anyone who held a different opinion.  The expert concept mentioned before was quickly forgotten, and soon everything became about the money.

In László Zsolt Szabó’s place Várhegyi invited the former Index CEO and then Origo managing director Miklós Vaszily to assume the position of MTVA acting CEO.  It was in his meeting room that a listening device was found in spring.  According to police documents, only the director of operations, Imre Vas, could have ordered the professional equipment for “higher purposes.”  It is not difficult to tie this “higher purpose” to Várhegyi, as presumably he was the one who authorized it.

What could have been the reason for that?

Apart from diplomatics and political potentates, employees, labor unions and other colleagues also pass through Vaszily’s ofice, and in this way the increasingly less trusting Várhegyi could have obtained information about internal matters.  In the meantime, Várhegyi crossed more and more important people, taking away their businesses.  “The great lord was very conceited” notes our source.

Moreover, it seems Vaszily may have been stuck in Várhegyi’s gullet.  “Perhaps they had worked out some kind of compromise, just in case he wanted to stick his nose into the system of payments.  That alone would be reason to listen in on him.  The system is like a plug. The inside people are weak and incapable of decision.  But even then, if they apply themselves they can break the system” says our source.

If a corruption scandal were to break out, it could result in an illumination of public media-related expenditures.  In addition to other corrupt matters, one surrounding the “convicted felon-led public media” would not be good for Fidesz.

So why is Miklós Vaszily still in his position?

Several of our sources believe that Várhegyi wore out his “mandate to terminate” with the termination of László Zsolt Szabó and that he dare not knock on Orbán’s door with yet another request.

Another source summarizes Várhegyi’s person as follows:

“He agreed to undertake the mudslinging.  The reason he was able to get close to the MTVA money trough was because he has a routine, and got to know the important players and political movers over the years.  Now he can divert campaign and other funds by terribly overpricing everything and seeing to it that only his friends get contracts.  You don’t need experts or a real CEO here.  Because of the Szolnok matter Várhegyi is little more than a political skeleton with nothing to lose.”