Tamás Portik on Energol, real estate and political connections

March 26, 2015

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Translation of investigative journalist Antónia Rádi’s article “Money of this magnitude has no party colours – Tamás Portik on real estate, the oily underworld and political connections” appearing in Átlátszó.hu on March 2nd, 2015.

He calls them bullet traps – Tamás Portik speaks about the well known faces of 1990s night life in an interview with Átlátszó. Politicians skimmed off 70 to 80 percent of the profits from their businesses, he said. He recently joined the ranks of those who see the interior minister Sándor Pintér, who has held various law enforcement posts since the regime change, behind every shady case. Portik does not feel this is a desperate, empty lashing out, however, and even alludes to other high-level connections.

Átlátszó was on the right track when it floated the idea in a series of articles on real estate corruption scandals in central Budapest that there could be a connection between the Pápa-Szetlik family, which did so well from property sales, the prime ministerial commissioner Árpád Habony, who was among their relations, and interior minister Sándor Pintér, who, as a beneficiary through a former business partner, was indirectly linked to the real estate cases. This at least lends credence to Tamás Portik, himself a known figure from the 1990s night life, who by his own assertion had a friendly relationship with Marianne Pápa.

Portik was interviewed by Átlátszó in the Budapest Remand Prison. He pushes the limits of credibility when he paints a rather exaggerated picture of the role Pápa played in domestic life. However, if only because it is supported by sources independent of the pair, he is probably telling the truth when he says there was, contrary to the businesswoman’s denial, a strong connection between them over the two years until his arrest in 2012. Formerly in the oil business and later an investor in online media, revealed hitherto unknown details about the oil-dealing underworld.

Portik is not in great shape, and bears scarce resemblance to the young man that can be seen in earlier photographs of him. Although he does not seem to be sick, but because of an extensive skin problem, he refused to allow Átlátszó to film or take photographs. He had prepared well, and arrived in the prison chapel where we conducted the interview with his hands full of densely written papers and bulging files. There were six of us: our interview subject was escorted by two prison staff, and two members of the prison service’s press office were present.

I’m getting ready to leave here. Every day I jog in the courtyard, I’m on a diet, and I’m first out of bed at wake-up call, says Portik while glancing at the guards escorting him, asking for confirmation. One of them nods: yes, it is just as the prisoner says.

Following this talk of his lifestyle behind bars, talk turned to the serious crimes – the bombing that killed four people (Aranykéz utca) and incitement to murder (the Prisztás killing) – with which he has been charged. If he is found guilty, he will not be free any time soon, and possibly never again. He is forced to clutch at any straw, sometimes spreading bombastic conspiracy theories.

All this came up because a recurrent theme in his discourse was the Pápa-Pintér connection, which he also voiced at his most recent trial hearing at the Budapest-Capital Court, and according to which Marianne Pápa was the real mastermind who told Habony what to do, and Sándor Pintér was her partner in all this. “Marianne Pápa is in control, what she says goes,” he stressed.

While this all undoubtedly sounds a bit strong, the connection between the protagonists does not come entirely from thin air: Habony is the cousin of Pápa’s ex-husband Ferenc Szetlik. Szetlik and Pintér’s histories are linked by the Józsefváros market: the businessman operated the Chinese flea-market, whose traders saw Pintér’s former security firm as their saviour from the heavy handedness of on-site guards.

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Portik was a friend of Marianne Pápa, Szetlik’s widow. “I knew her very well, and we met regularly, travelled and took summer holidays together, not just with Marianne, but with her family, too,” he said.

Although the businesswoman denied any relationship in a statement after the real estate corruption scandal erupted, in this case it is Portik’s version that rings truer. Not only because the connection was common knowledge among the pair’s acquaintances and the media had come in (the market bequeathed by Szetlik appeared in reports at the time of its closure), but also because Portik now revealed many details of the family’s life that could only be known to close confidants.

Tamás Portik: I already knew Ferenc Szetlik, Uncle Feri, from Jószefváros. I only met Marianne for the first time in a court hearing at the end of the 2000s, she was a witness and I was one of the spectators – one of the defendents was an acquaintance and I was interested in the case. Our connection deepened in 2010.

Átlátszó: Did Marianne Pápa, to your knowledge, maintain contact with here late husband’s relation Árpád Habony?

PT: If I remember well, we even met at a family event. What is for sure, is that Marianne regularly chatted to him on Skype. But I did not really see Habony as an important person. The important one was Sándor Pintér.

Á: Did you have insight into the Szetlik-Pápa family’s financial affairs?

PT: Of course. The real estate, too. Business was going freely.

Á: Where did they hear about the opportunity?

PT: Péter Csipak called… You know who Péter Csipak is?

Á: A downtown property developer.

PT: Let’s put it like that. So he comes up saying, Tomi, we need money for the city centre. We met in a restaurant in Pasarét. I don’t believe he would deny this if you ask him, but if he does, he’s in trouble, because there’s a recording in a safe place.  I think he himself felt at the time that I didn’t entirely trust him. Before one of our meetings, he frisked me to see if I was wired.

Á: Did you or the Szetlik-Pápa family get anything beyond the properties on Károly körút and Bajcsy-Zsilinszky út that have been in the media?

PT: Yes, but for now I don’t want to tell the exact address.

Á: Were any property deals struck in other districts?

PT: We found some great shops in District I.

In addition to mentioning two residential properties in the neighbourhood of the Mátyás Church, without giving the exact address, Portik named a businessperson who had been involved in the entertainment industry, who he said had acted as front man in the acquisition of two retail premises in the Castle District. The person in question acknowledged to Átlátszó that he had known Portik from long ago, but he denied doing any joint business. There is no trace of their connection in any accessible database, while the properties are leaseholds owned by District I.

The Castle District’s press office also denied the connection. In a reply to Átlátszó, they wrote that they had no knowledge of any business circles linked to Portik having bought council-owned property in the district (where, by the way, the discount for tenants, at 20%, is 10% lower than in the city centre).

Á: According to the rules in the city centre, tenants were entitled to buy at a discount. In practice, however, it happened more than once that the ownership of the tentant company changed at the time of the sale, or that a tenant simply gave up his right off first refusal to someone else. But what could they gain from this, since they are missing a big opportunity by losing the 30% discount?

PT: Maybe they just didn’t have enough capital, no? That’s just a theory. I’ll leave it to your imagination…

An important lead in the city-centre cases and in connection with Portik came from earlier report in Népszabadság, according to which the same authorities that reported former District V notary László Rónaszéki on suspicion of breach of office had previously investigated business interests and potential criminal connections of Portik and  László “the Disco King” Vizoviczki. Rónaszéki had a active role in the property cases: he directed the district administration for much of the period when discounted sales were made.

It is striking that Portik only speaks about transactions that can be linked to the political right wing (even though, for example, the Szetlik-Pápa firm Komondor Zrt acquired property in District VI between 2002 and 2009, when it was led by the former MSZP mayor István Verók). In the 2014 election campaign, one of the favourite recurring motifs of the right wing’s campaign was to conflate the alleged godfather Portik with the political left. A meeting in 2008 between Portik and the former director of the National Security Office Sándor Laborc served as the basis for this legend.

PT: Did we agree something concrete there?

Á: Not really, but reading the transcribed conversation it seems that there was at least some bizarre agreement or understanding between you…

PT: You’ve got it wrong. We had lunch together twice, in public places and in company. They were moderately interesting exploratory discussions, but really a trap laid at Pintér’s request. It was in his interests that I should expose myself.

Á: Could you please explain that in more detail?

PT: Pintér is an absolute Orbanist, a number one supporter of the prime minister. He was looking for way to bring down those he considered to be enemies within Fidesz…

Á: But how does Pintér come into this? He was an entrepreneur in the security market at the time. How did they get him to approach Laborc, and persuade Laborc to receive him?

PT: The meeting was arranged by Lajos Vajtó, the then director of the horse racing company, he has good connections in both directions. Vajtó is Pintér’s man.

This information really gives one the feeling that “less is more”. A quick google search when fact checking these statements gave results that provide food for thought. An article appeared in Népszabadság following the ominous meetings, saying that the Vajtó-led firm Nemzeti Lóverseny Kft hired Pintér then firm Civil Biztonsági Szolgálat Zrt to provide security for the then star thoroughbred Overdose for two months from November 2009 at a cost of 60,000 forints a day.

The protection was not ordered by the owner of the racehorse (at that time still exclusively the “magnate with national obligations” Zoltán Mikóczy; Lajos Simicska later joined via Közgép what turned out to be a miserable business failure), but the state-owned Kft [limited company]. Vajtó said in justification that this would still lead to cost savings.

A few days ago, their names once again appeared together in the tabloids: the “star managers” team won the 17th Valentine’s Day tennis championship in support of the Hungary Africa Society, held at the Tabán tennis club and noted for its illustrious guest list. Vajtó was a member of the winning team, while Pintér was among those in the politicians’ team.

Incidentally, Vajtó made no secret of the respect that one senses towards the former and present interior minister, and indeed voiced it during a Portik-Laborc meeting at the Vadrózsa restaurant, according to the transcripts. He described Pintér as a serious man and good father of whom the Horn-government’s interior minister Gábor Kuncze made an enemy by removing him from the post of national police chief. “He knows more secrets than anyone, there’s no one else like him.”

Vajtó’s acquaintances make no secret today of the fact that the businessman considers Pintér a professional, knowledgeable politician, but say it would be a mistake to draw any conclusions from this. Vajtó said at the venue that the meeting had been called in the hope of casting light on “one of the most important recent crimes that remains a mystery”, about which they expected information from Portik.

We can at best suspect which one this was. There was much talk during the discussion of the Fenyő murder. The man accused of the 1998 killing of the media entrepreneur János Fenyő is the same Rohac József on whom the prosecution service is pinning the Aranykéz utca bombing – this is why the court is treating the two incidents as one case – and whereas they think they know who instigated the latter (Portik), they have been searching in vain for 20 years for the ringleader in the Fenyő case.

Á: You were the director of an embematic 1990s oil company, Energol Rt. It acted as a supplier for ETL, in which then prominent members of the MSZP held important posts, among them the former governmental energy commissioner Imre Karl (we have learnt that Karl also took part in the aforementioned tennis gala in Tabán).

PT: I would like to stress that I was Energol’s marketing director, and I did not oversee the business dealings, my task was to gather capital for the firm’s activities. Generally speaking, money of this magnitude has no party colours. A hundred individuals profit by moving together.

Á: What did “moving together” mean in practical terms?

PT: What laid the foundations for the oil business? Parliament’s 1993 law.

Á: For our younger readers, oil crimes that raked in billions in profit were based on the price of oil for household heating being kept low for so-called social considerations, while the price of chemically identical diesel oil was dictated by the market. The business was obvious: oil purchased as heating oil was sold as diesel. Is that correct?

PT: Absolutely. Still, how would all this have happened without the law on the price of heating oil, then the cooperation of the authorities?

Á: I imagine that in the parliamentary lobby, there are one or two insiders, lawmakers who know which rule would benefit whom, and the majority “just” press their buttons (Portik nods). Can you give the names of any of these insiders?

PT: This are old matters.

Á: It has been a concern for 20 years, if a few hard men get together to set up a company…

PT: What hard men? That’s a different genre. We were a small point in a small country.

Á. So they get together and in 1994 they set up Energol, and when they look for a managing director, they find József Csikós, a retired police colonel who had earlier headed the MSZMP [Communist Party] propaganda department, then the interior ministry’s press office, and later the interior ministry’s data processing office. How did this casting take place? Did someone recommend Csikós?

PT: At first I didn’t believe it myself, that all this would become such a big business. How can we undercut MOL’s prices, I asked – of course at the time the heating oil law hadn’t been passed. Csikós was brought in by a female acquaintance of Gábor Drobilich, but I’m afraid I do not remember exactly who it was.

Á: Did Energol start as a front company for the secret services?

PT: No.

Á: Could Csikós have brought with him files from interior ministry that could have been used to blackmail certain lawmakers?

PT: Are you kidding? I could have investiaged anyone’s past for 5 million forints, even now, from here. We knew all about it. We didn’t need Csikós for that.

Á: Now for whatever reason, several of surviving legendary figures from the night life of the 1990s have come under investigation: you, László Vizoviczki, István Veress, György Tanyi, and many fresh cases, with supporting witness statements the…

PT: Lying, slanderous!

Á: …bearer of incriminating statements László Radnai, too. As if the criminal justice system now feels it is important to retouch recent history. What do you think is happening?

PT: The names listed have one thing in common: we all new the system, we know who is at the end of the chain. It’s not only me saying this, Tasnádi said it, Clodo said it, the oil committee witness said it, by coincidence? Do you think it is conceivable that the only people who didn’t know about the oil crimes, or that you could get hold of drugs in Vizoviczki’s clubs, were living on the moon? For decades? What did you see if you turned up at Dokk? Young politicians with diluted pupils and scarred noses – is this news? We’re talking about turnover of 20-25 billion forints a year. Where do you think the money is? We put 20 to 30 percent at best of the profits into our own pockets. I used to call us the bullet catchers: we sit there if there’s a problem, if it’s a bigger one, they shoot us to pieces.

Á: It often seemed that there were guardian angels at work. The Energol investigation only started in 1997, a year after it was ordered. In 2003 it was closed on grounds of statute of limitations. Can you say where you were hiding?

PT: I’d rather not. Let’s just say that in such cases it’s a good idea to leave the country. And don’t forget that most of the Energol people were acquitted in the end, and the rest got light sentences. I hid all this time because of a tax fruad case that ended in acquittal, then I come home, live in the open, I’m seen with illustrious people, while at the same time I allegedly commited the crimes that they are now pinning on me. Nonsense.

Á: You came back in the 2000s and went into business. We’ve already talked about your real estate investments, would you talk about your other interests? Press reports link you to the Generál Média group, with interests in online media. Is it rerally yours?

PT: I’m really not going to speak about this. I’m preparing for these cases for which I am here to fall apart soon, and I will go free.

Portik gave rather longer answers in our original conversation, though he did evade our questions about Generál Média then as well. We asked again: “It’s not because of real estate deals with Hódmezővásárhely, then run by János Lázár, who is now chancellery minister?”

Generál Média bought a school and the neighbouring plot of land in exchange for internet adverts. Now he asked at all costs for the parts of the text relating to the company to be removed – those that mentioned not just the Hódmezővásárhely business, but for example the usefulness of the public database in the MyVip portal, which belongs to the company group. But why can he only hint, when he did not refuse to answer what appeared to be trickier questions? Those close to him assert, however, that in his sticky situation, Generál Média could be Portik’ trump card.

We sought reactions from people referred to by Portik in his statements

Sándor Pintér (through the interiror ministry’s press department): I do not know Marianne Pápa. Please ask Tamás Portik about Tamás Portik’s interests.

Kristóf Kosik, Árpád Habony’s lawyer: My client has no connection with the person named.

Tamás Ruttkai, Péter Csipak’s lawyer: Mr Péter Csipak never had any kind of business connection with Tamás Portik, and neither for his investments in central Budapest nor and either did he ever ask for or receive money from Tamás Portik. Mr Péter Csipak has no intention of assisting you in connection with Mr Tamás Portik’s false statements. The assertions formulated or quoted in your letter do not correspond to the truth either in part or in whole. For this reason, if you imply information contrary to our response, or make it public, by doing so you will you would be violating Mr Péter Csipak’s human rights, which would have legal consequences for you.

Marianne Pápa did not respond to our request.