ATHENS – It took threats to investigate Finance Ministry officials who refused to release a list of Greece’s biggest tax evaders who owe the struggling country $56 billion, but a public prosecutor now knows who they are, including number one, an as-yet unidentified civil engineer implicated in a scheme to fix trials in Greece’s courts. His bill? Some 86 million euros, or $118 million.
Prosecutor Grigoris Peponis is said to be studying the list, according to the Athens newspaper Kathimerini, and is reportedly ready to begin legal action after years of inaction by the government amid speculation by Greeks that it includes well-connected people who have avoided being investigated. Anger over what Greeks have complained is the injustice of being heavily taxed to help Greece recover while tax evaders are escaping with impunity has led to constant protests and riots, and the government of Prime Minister George Papandreou has been dragging its feet, international lenders giving Greece $157 billion in rescue loans have also claimed.
Kathimerini said Peponis asked for the list in July but was ignored for three months until he threatened to go after recalcitrant Finance Ministry officials. That office also recently was under scrutiny for refusing to collect fines from tax evaders in the illegal fuel trading business and giving them back fines that had already been collected, fueling further suspicion there was a link between tax evaders and government officials protecting them.
Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos has for months been vowing to release the names but never did. It was not clear when or if the names would be made public. There are some 900,000 people on it, but only 5 percent of them, or about 6,500 people and 8,200 businesses who owe 85 percent of the monies, or more than $50 billion. The average they owe is about $206,000 during a time when Venizelos has issued several new tax hike decrees, including forcing people making $6,700 a year to pay taxes for the first time and also instituting a new property tax put into electric bills under the threat of having power turned off, wages garnished and properties seized for those who can’t or won’t pay.
Many tax evaders may go unpunished as Peponis said he will be studying the list to determine who can be prosecuted while Kathimerini said he must separate those “from those where there are still legal obstacles to overcome,” without elaborating. Some businesses are said to be in the public sector and can’t pay while some individuals have reportedly died, although that hasn’t the Ministry from billing the dead in some cases. Kathimerini also reported that two associates of Greece’s biggest evader are also alleged to be on the list.
Tax evasion is an endemic and systemic problem in Greece, part of the national culture as few have ever been prosecuted and one of the country’s top tax prosecutors recently said not a single major evader has been arrested. Despite a raft of new taxes, part of austerity measures in which most Greeks have had their pay cut to go along with slashed pensions and scores of thousands of layoffs while tax evasion prosecution has lagged until recently, tax receipts have fallen, including some 6.9 percent in October, as the plan has backfired, creating a deep recession with more than 17 percent unemployment and more than 100,000 businesses closing as people have stopped spending.