The career arc of Péter Polt, Hungary's chief prosecutor

September 9, 2016

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Translation of Antonia Rádi’s article “The Orbán regime’s most important pillar – the career arc of Péter Polt” published by investigative journalism website Átlatszó.hu on June 27th, 2016.

When we asked for help in sketching a portrait of chief prosecutor Péter Polt, something upon which our sources could broadly agree on was that he is a member of [president János] Áder’s cadre. With a chameleon-like talent for adaptation and even non-sympathisers saying he is a decent colleague and a competent professional, Polt’s career progression cannot be put down only to his former party, Fidesz. The MSZP-SZDSZ [Socialist-Liberal] coalition also gave him a boost on more than one occasion. He has played a key role in the setting up and operation of the NER [Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s social contract dubbed the “System of National Cooperation”] yet until now, he has remained largely unknown. It is time to change that.

The prosecution service is the most import pillar of the system – Viktor Orbán may not have realised how close to the honest truth he came with this statement, made amid rhetoric making a fetish of law and order at an annual ceremony recognising the work of the service.

The chief prosecutor’s office rules over what can be considered the most important questions in a democracy. Due to the strict hierarchy of the organisation, it depends entirely on Polt who appears before the courts and, moreover, decides which cases are investigated in the first place – and, perhaps even more importantly: who avoids being held to account.

This cannot be put down to coincidence – but if it is, then all those eminently suitable people who have been cast in this most important of roles should be very grateful for it.

In the course of our research, it came to light that the choice may have been made a decade before Polt was first appointed chief prosecutor in 2000. What is for sure is that Polt has been an “important person” in Fidesz since the early 1990s.

How was this article written?

Átlátszó carried out dozens of background discussions for this article with people who lived through the earlier events or contributed to their work with expert knowledge. Because of the sensitive nature of the issue, our sources without exception insisted upon anonymity. They were mainly people familiar with the founding of Fidesz, academic legal experts, prosecution lawyers, and party politicians.

Since we had to reconstruct old events dating back ten to twelve year or earlier, we accepted as true only those statements that were corroborated by at least three sources.

We asked Péter Polt for an interview, but his deputy spokesperson Raulla Merhely only promised a meeting at some unspecified time in the future. In response, we sent a few concrete questions to Polt in order to clear up some potential contradictions. The responses of the Chief Prosecutor’s Office are quoted here.

Polt became acquainted with the eventual founders of the party at the law faculty of ELTE university in the 1980s, when he was the future teacher of the students (who would later go on to found) Fidesz and sympathetic to the opposition movement.

This was presumably not due to his background. His mother worked in the office of the dean of the law faculty, while his father, Miklós Polt, was deputy director of the criminal law department at the Chief Prosecutor’s Office. “In those days, you needed more than luck to get into positions like that,” said a source familiar with the communist-era judicial service.

Others from the prosecution service of the time were more specific: Polt senior was considered more of a specialist in transport-related matters, and did not take part in the sensitive cases involving crimes against the state (for which there was a separate department in those days). In his book Four Decades in the Prosecution Service, the former head of the Budapest prosecution service, Endre Bócz, directly named Miklós Polt as “human resources rapporteur” for the then chief prosecutor Károly Szíjártó.

Polt senior raised his only son strictly, and some who graduated with the current chief prosecutor from his alma mater, the Veres Pálné “kingmaker” school in Pest, recall that getting less that a B-grade would lead to severe punishment – at least that was the rumour. A further indication of the father’s strong influence on the family was that between two terms as chief prosecutor, the young Polt – as likely as not on his own initiative – headed the same department of the criminal court in the Markó street that his father had worked at.

In any case, the young criminal lawyer stepped out of the shadow of his regime-friendly family. People who knew him at university say he became particularly close to János Áder, four years his junior, and his wife Anita Herczeg, thanks to the organisation of a particularly successful lawyers conference.

Everybody loved Péter

This close acquaintance lasted beyond the founding off Fidesz in 1988, and sources say Polt became an adviser to the party on Áder’s recommendation, and worked in the human rights group led by Gábor Fodor and the legal working group notable for containing both Áder and József Szájer. “He was a nice, quiet young man,” former colleagues recall.

“His striking talent for adaptation wasn’t awkward: those in the vanguard of the legal profession at the time were committed democrats.”

He only joined the party in 1993, apparently not, as many remember it, because he had passed the age limit for membership – in 1988 to 1990, Polt had not yet reached his 35th birthday. Indeed, he was promptly handed a party political office as president of the ethics committee.

These were troubled and difficult times for Fidesz. The so-called “democratic base” was already rebelling against Orbán-style professionalism, although many of them now recognise that in a tactical sense Orbán was right: party politics demands professional politicians and experts such as Polt.

Fidesz lost its sweet-smelling aura of innocence at around this time. Articles in Népszabadság and Magyar Hírlap about the so-called “headquarters affair”, in which the alternative-liberal Fidesz – which presented itself as an opposition party fighting the conservative government – and ruling MDF (Hungarian Democratic Coalition) party divvied up between themselves properties acquired from the state. HVG revealed the business empire being built up behind Fidesz, and Népszabadság subsequently wrote about the privatisation of Mahir.

With these cases, the wider public first came to hear about the hitherto unknown figure in the background, Lajos Simicska. Amid all this, he came out into the open, and soon afterwards, the internal conflict led to a party split between Orbán and his circle and the party’s liberal wing led by Gábor Fodor.

Nevertheless, our sources do not remember any dispute being settled within the ethics committee. They do recall, however, that at the time Orbán and László Kövér brought Áder, known as a supporter of Polt, on board as a quasi-moderator and chief party apparatchik. It is difficult to imagine that he would have been unaware of any backroom deals.

A year later, the new arrival Polt was placed in 17th place on the party list for the general election, making him a shoo-in for parliament if the party even approached the 20 percent level of support that pollsters had recently measured. However, for reasons not unconnected to the aforementioned corruption cases, they only won 7 percent. Polt was thus excluded from law making.

However, not only did this fail to wreck a career that had begun so well, but its trajectory even began to steepen. It transpired that the election winning MSZP [Hungarian Socialist Party] formed a coalition with the SZDSZ [Alliance of Free Democrats], the Horn government. In 1995, they created the office of an ombudsman for fundamental rights [OBH] and appointed the professor of criminology Katalin Gönczöl to the post.

Although the governing coalition had the political power to appoint only its own candidates to the office, the right-wing opposition was given the opportunity to nominate Gönczöl’s deputy. Whether this was political weakness, some kind of backroom deal, or an honourable diplomatic gesture, would only become clear in light of events ten years later. The OBH deputy presidency was the first, but not the last time, that the MSZP-SZDSZ coalition boosted Polt’s career.

In any case, those close to the former president of the republic Árpád Göncz remember former justice minister Pál Vastagh (MSZP) and Gábor Fodor, newly transferred to the SZDSZ, as the ones who brought the news of a “compromise” over the OBH deputy leadership.

Vastagh now referred to the international law scholar Mrs. Hanna Szegő Bokor as the person to whom he enquired about Polt, and from whom he heard only good things. Yet he could have made inquiries within his own ministry: according to Polt’s CV, he worked as an adviser to the ministry from 1990 to 1995, thus for a year during Vastagh’s own time there. Those around Fodor accepted that if their president did take part in the decision, though they do not remember, then he acted correctly as such gestures towards the political opposition are, as the Liberals say today, an inherent part of the mature use of political power.

Surprising even the experts, the opposition nominated Polt, who was largely unknown outside a small circle of university legal scholars and the founders of Fidesz. Not that he had no past experience in the field of human rights: in the 1990s he was a regular lecturer at, for example, the Hungarian Helsinki Commission’s so-called “law clinic”, to the satisfaction of all concerned.

Polt – who resigned from Fidesz upon accepting his new office – did not arrive alone at the OBH. He insisted that his closest colleague, András Zs. Varga be at the office. Varga and Polt were inseparable from that day until recently when, in 2014, the latter was elected a member of the Constitutional Court. Those who remember the OBH days say there was at the time already a sort of hardware-software relationship between them – and by “software”, they meant Varga.

Ten years younger than Polt and of Transylvanian extraction, the soon to be deputy chief prosecutor and now Constitutional Court judge differs from his superior in that, unlike Polt, he does make statements that can be understood as political.  According to a report by Index, he argued during his 2014 parliamentary hearing as a candidate to be a Constitutional Court judge, that in his opinion judges swear on the Constitution and its so-called “national pledge” (ideological preamble), and cannot boss people around on the basis of professional convictions.

Varga, according to documents seen by Átlátszó, was eventually given an active role in the amendment of the prosecution service law under the MSZP-SZDSZ government in 2005. This amendment created the possibility of “extended service” for him and his superiors after their mandates had been completed – but let us not get ahead of ourselves.

The OBH harbours essentially good memories of Polt, are least there is no sign that at the time he represented the different values of his party, which had taken a conservative turn – although it is true that at the time the office issued its rulings by consensus.

The good relations appeared to be mutual.  For example, the then directors spent part of their free time together at the Tabán tennis courts, which were extremely popular with politicians of all sides. However, some were struck at the time by the particular attention the current chief prosecutor allegedly paid towards female colleagues, although in the mid-1990s, attitudes towards perhaps unwanted flattery were not as acute as they are nowadays.

The transformation of the pleasant, adaptable human rights lawyer into the fist of the party continued smoothly. In 1998, Fidesz won the elections, and in coalition with the FKGP [Smallholders Party], the first Orbán government was formed.

Orbán’s people had developed an appetite on the way. Firstly, a significant power centre, albeit smaller than the Chief Prosecutor’s Office, was assimilated: Lajos Simicska was put in charge of APEH [the national tax office, now NAV] shortly after the change of government in the early autumn of 1998.

At the time, the post of chief prosecutor was held by Kálmán Györgyi.

Kálmán Györgyi was in the way – Áder steps in

Kálmán Györgyi, until then dean of ELTE’s law faculty, was elected by consensus in 1990, and he was confirmed in his post by parliament six years later, so his mandate was due to expire in 2002.

The casus belli was provided by the appointment of so-called “rump” boards of trustees for the public service media, that is, ones comprised of only members of the governing party. The then head of the Chief Prosecutor’s Office, which at the time also supervised non-governmental organisations (including public foundations), issued a resolution protesting the move.

It was then that Polt’s old friend and political sponsor Áder, then president of the parliament, stepped onto the stage. First of all, he issued a (still, at the time) unusually strident statement saying the governing majority was not bound by such resolutions. “You are not relevant,” ran the contemporary cartoon caption.

Then they had a face-to-face discussion behind closed doors, and afterwards Györgyi resigned without explanation. The two parties have guarded their secret ever since. At the time, Áder stated that “as a gentleman he would remain silent at the express request” of his former teacher, Györgyi.

As for the former chief prosecutor, he did not reveal his reasons even in a sometimes self-chastising resignation letter to his colleagues. Yet since then, especially in light of the changes that have been made to the prosecution service, he really ought to have provided an explanation.

Unless he found a large horse’s head in his bed. It was a relatively common assumption (and not only in narrow legal circles) that, for example, Györgyi’s lawyer wife Éva Kardos – who now sits on the board of supervisors at Zsolnai Porcelain, which is locked in a battle with Pécs city council – may have tested the boundaries of conflict of interest. This theory has been floated in articles in Magyar Narancs and HVG.

However it happened, Áder (and Györgyi) opened the door to Polt, who the government majority duly elected as chief prosecutor. That he was not prepared or they did not prepare him for the task can be ruled out by subsequent analysis of the dates of the prompt transfer of power. Elected on 2 May, Polt announced in a short meeting of senior staff on 15 May that he would replace Györgyi’s two deputies with Ervin Belovics and András Zs. Varga. Until then the latter’s highest job title in the prosecution service had been trainee, or apprentice.

The book by Bócz referred to above also revealed some prosecution service gossip: in these troubling times, even before Polt moved in, his former boss Attila Gál had also retired. According to the story he had a good reason not to wait for Polt to arrive. Several people also told Átlátszó that among Miklós Polt’s former circle of friends, there lived a hope that the appointment of the younger Polt would cause their lucky stars to shine. They were disappointed: Polt hardly brought anyone in from amongst the old people.

The atmosphere and the new directors who would only speak among themselves is also described in Bócz’s book: “one person described the situation of them acting like a battle reconnaissance scout in a foreign city”.

Polt had the author and 12 county chief prosecutors replaced in autumn.

While this was going on, the work started in earnest. Leading members of the Smallholders Party, the coalition partner of which Fidesz had become tired, were led away in handcuffs, starting with Zoltán Székely and Béla Szabadi. By contrast, investigations were hampered into cases that could prove embarrassing for Fidesz, for example that of the phantom companies close to Simicska.

Sándor loves Péter, too

At more or less the same time as this change in style came a change in the company he kept: less tennis and a new hobby for his leisure time. The so-called sport of the so-called social elite: hunting. He found a partner in the country’s eternal chief oligarch, OTP boss Sándor Csányi, who through Polt’s friendship gathered the key figures in practical criminal law. His traditional relations with interior minister Sándor Pintér require no special explanation.

HVG wrote in 2004 about a hunt in Balatonendréd in January 2002 at which, according to the article, a “powerful team” gathered: several senior staff of OTP, family members of president-CEO Sándor Csányi, the then undersecretary for civil administration from the Prime Minister’s Office Béla Bártfai, and Péter Polt.

Since this event, the trial of MSZP’s then undersecretary for public finances, László Keller, had been working its way slowly through the courts. After the 2002 change of government, he asked Polt in a written parliamentary question how he can reconcile his passion for hunting with his official duties.

At the time of the hunt in Balatonendréd, the prosecutor’s office was already investigating the case of highly questionable contracts at the Country Image Centre, which belongs to the prime minister’s office.

Keller also asked whether Polt had paid for the hunt – which was not entirely unjustified given the Balatonendréd hunting grounds belonged to the state-owned firm Sefag Zrt. The state company owned several other estates where, it later emerged, Polt turned up with the OTP leadership and other notables, including Sándor Pintér and the banker János Erős.

The Medgyessy government’s “accountability commissioner” smelled blood, and rained questions on his own party’s agriculture ministry, where government commissioner Fülöp Benedek was working at the time. Benedek now works at OTP (where his official title is “other employee”).

Keller asked at the time who, under what contract, for what consideration and under what conditions is using state land to enjoy their hobby.

The undersecretary lost out.  First, the media made a clown of him with the title “antler gate”.  Then his political support dwindled.  Finally criminal proceedings were launched against him. The 2004 prosecution for abuse of office finally closed in March this year, and the Kuria [Supreme Court] put him on probation for “attempted misuse of personal data”.

Alongside the bourgeois tennis and the aristocratic hunts, Polt also spent time on the more proletarian pursuit of football. Since 2011, he has been photographed in the company of oligarchs in the VIP box at matches. Not only with Csányi and, of course, Orbán, but also figures such as the Csányi confidant and MOL president Zsolt Hernádi, who has been accused in serious corruption cases in Croatia.

The Socialists also loved Péter: the story of Lex Polt

It was not only because of the hunting issue that Keller was impeded by the prosecution service: one by one his investigations into the Country Image Centre fell by the wayside. These included the favourite pre-2002 public procurement champions, Happy End and Ezüsthajó [PR and film production firms], motorway construction companies, and stadium entry systems bought for astronomical prices then moth-balled. (A detailed analysis of the cases that can be linked to Polt will be dealt with in the next part of this series of articles – ed.)

Meanwhile, Keller had a measure of success in parliament: there were several interventions in which MPs rejected Polt’s answers. At such times, the assembly’s constitutional affairs committee has to discuss the rejected answer, and the plenary has to rule again on the basis of the committee`s report.

Many around the former state secretary Keller were unsatisfied and disappointed with the activities of the commission, which was headed at the time by Vastagh, mentioned above in connection with the nomination for deputy ombudsman. Critics say it was as though their work was being poked at with sticks. Vastagh resolutely denied this. Yet it is striking that, for example, after the response to questions about the Happy End contract was rejected by MPs in June 2002, the committee only produced its report – with a majority finding Polt to have been at fault – a year later, in May 2003.

The snail’s pace of the process can be explained, for example, by the heavy burden of legislative work. However, there is no reasonable explanation for what happened in 2005, except that the Gyurcsány government made a pact with Polt behind the scenes.

“We don’t want to get banged up over the Kulcsár case” – this was not the ministerial justification for a November 2005 amendment to the law on the public prosecution. Instead, it was this banality: this amendment will close the gap between rules related to the legal status of judges and prosecutors, which “has provided direction in all cases in the process of development of Hungarian law”.

The essence of the amendment was that the former Chief Prosecutor and his deputy could if they wanted remain working at the Chief Prosecutor’s Office under the honorary title of chief adviser to the chief prosecutor’s office. In terms of payment, in addition to a duty allowance they would receive, as they choose, the remuneration of a department head (deputy department head for the deputy) or a director’s allowances according to their new scope of activities.

The was the Lex Polt/Lex Varga. By way of a reminder: we are talking about November 2005, the MSZP and SZDSZ are in government, and Polt’s mandate is due to expire in May 2006.

Why was it necessary to give Polt a sporting job, and one which, moreover, would allow him to keep his eyes on the work of the prosecution service after his mandate expired? The background interviews we have conducted paint an even more repugnant picture of Hungarian public life than that which exists already.

The governing parties occupied themselves from 2002 with finding a way to force Polt’s resignation. At the start of the parliamentary term, at the time of the Medgyessy mania for “burying the past”, we know that the above “extended service” was the first offer, provided that he takes his hat and leaves. At the start it looked like the deal would work, but in the end it came to nothing. According to our sources, a full year later the offer was the job of judge in the EU’s highest court, headquartered in Luxembourg.

However, Polt remained Chief Prosecutor.

The signs were that Polt was playing a tactical game, even if many believe he was not acting only on his own instincts. In the end, he was able to take the first offer and did not even have to resign, instead sitting out his mandate. But what did he give in return?

The superficial battle – when viewed with a measure of cynicism – hid a kind of cooperation that could be described as polite. It is true that criminal proceedings were blocked in the cases of “Fidesz graft”, but no proceedings were launched against leading MSZP or SZDSZ politicians or their cronies. (The first public corruption case launched against the left was that of Ferenc Zuschlag, but his arrest in 2007 was under the watch of Polt’s successor as chief prosecutor, Tamás Kovács.)

This was still the time of the 70-30 split (referring to the divvying up of embezzled public funds between parties in and out of government-tran.)

Relations were so cordial that Polt met fairly frequently with Gyurcsány’s cabinet chief György Szilvásy, who Polt also knew from the Tabán tennis matches, to discuss the latest issues on a “your place or mine” basis. According to the reply received from the communications department of the Chief Prosecutor’s Office:

“Cooperation between the prosecution service and its directors with state organs and their directors arose in the past from the institutions’ duty to cooperate, and that is still the situation now. This was no different with regard to the period or the state leadership you inquired about. The regular contact is of an official nature.”

Sources close to the former prime minister say one such theme was the planned amendment of the law on the public prosecution. In the prosecution service, it is remembered thus:

“The prosecution service continually makes recommendations in the case of a wide variety of laws for reasons of operational effectiveness and the modernisation of the organisation. In line with our legal duties, the prosecution service notes the amendment proposals sent to it for information purposes.

“The legal amendment that you refer to met with agreement from all sides. The justification of the position of the government, or parliament, can clearly be given by the institutions in question. However, it is also worth bearing in mind that the amendment is in line with the regulations already in effect that concern the president of the Supreme Court.”

Not only the end of Polt’s mandate, but also the coming election campaign produced an awkward – especially for the government – side effect to this trench-friendship. Many in the MSZP stayed out of the campaign because, amongst other things, an investigation started in 2003 into the largest yet broker scandal was coming to a head.

During the investigation, the testimony of Attila Kulcsár, the convicted moneychanger from Zalaegerszeg who became K&H Bank’s star broker, mentioned the MSZP’s then party finance guru and Ferenc Baja as those who shared in the dirty money. We have no reason to believe that every word from the shifty Kulcsár is gospel truth, but also nothing to assert the opposite, either. However, weaker allegations in the court record have already provided grounds to launch investigations.

Those once involved, the then chancellor, and members of Socialist Party caucus now started blaming each other for coming up with the idea of a deal. However, taking into account the history of tense relations between Gyurcsány and (former MSZP treasurer László) Puch, it is likely that the request came from the party, as a wish, if not a demand, to come up with a joint solution in the common interest and for the sake of the 2006 election campaign.

While those in the former SZDSZ do not want to remember, from contemporary documents it turns out that the undersecretary in the prime minister’s office, Gábor Horn (SZDSZ), asked for a coalition agreement because of the amendment.

“There was so much friction then with the Socialists that we didn’t want to fight over whether Polt should be a department head or not. In retrospect, perhaps we should have,” say former members of the defunct liberal party.

In any event, it is certain that the case was referred to Szilvásy in the chancellery – all those affected remember him as the one who worked to have the new rules adopted.

The 2005 government documents also show that the draft law, or at least the ominous passage, was practically written by Varga himself, or at least ministry staff would have had to agree it with him all the way through. It is also true that neither the coalition partner nor the MSZP caucus rebelled against the modification, and parliament voted it through. Yet Kulcsár’s testimony did not mention any politicians – of any stripe – as beneficiaries.

The twenty-billion-forint (USD 80 million) embezzlement case, after many procedural snags, is still working its way through the court of first instance today. The investigators have not made any particular efforts to find the missing money.

Tamás Kovács, the great election and Polt’s successor

The choice of Polt’s successor was an equally funny story. The then president of the republic, László Sólyom dug his heels in and wanted to put his own candidate before parliament without the agreement of the parliamentary parties. Thus, he succeeded in making a clown of his choice, Szeged’s chief prosecutor of appeals Miklós Horányi, who was Polt’s spokesman during his time as Chief Prosecutor. The ruling parties stuck to their guns and did not vote for Sólyom’s candidate.

Plan B, military chief prosecutor Major-General Tamás Kovács, allegedly belonged to the Socialists – this again from our “kingmaker” school source who mentioned Pál Vastagh. In any event, as part of an alleged pact, Sólyom presented him at a press conference as his own candidate.

Kovács did not embark on any sweeping reforms, and even kept Polt’s deputy Ervin Belovics. Moreover, it was on his watch that we saw the political trials that coincided with the 2010 elections – Hagyó, Hunvald, Gyula Molnár, army generals etc. etc. – which false collective memory usually attribute to Péter Polt, who was then busying himself in his post of department chief.

It is instructive, by the way, how the MSZP let the key position out of its grasp: there was a similar “dual power” set up in place at the interior ministry of the “past eight years” – where Pintér’s men practically guaranteed continuity whether or not ministers replaced one another.

Under the System of National Cooperation, Polt returned in the autumn of 2010. According to our sources, it was not certain at the outset that he would again be the Fidesz candidate. Many in the party lobbied for Belovics – allegedly mainly those for whom Csányi’s intervention over the former-prospective chief prosecutor – and the name of Imre Keresztes, formerly of Simicska’s entourage and then director of the Central Investigating Chief Prosecutor’s office.

The post still went to Polt, whose second term opened a new dimension in the history of judicial power being transformed into political support. Zoltán Spéder can now give a minute-by-minute account of this, alongside others like Péter Juhász of the Együtt [Together] party, who has been fighting to uncover corruption linked to real estate in downtown Budapest.

Meanwhile – and this was not typical earlier – there are indications of Polt’s personal involvement, and even in the most serious cases. His daughter is in a relationship with the former personal secretary of the Quaestor director Csaba Tarsoly – he has not been questioned, even as a witness, in what is the most serious financial scandal to date.

Moreover, his third wife, Marianna Palásthy, a former prosecutor in Tolna County from a well-known family of intellectuals, is paid five million forints a month as national bank president György Matolcsy’s hireling. She is a supervisory board member at National Bank foundations that are crying out for the attention of prosecutors.