Towergate: Austrian developer attacks ruling party leader

Gerald Birgfellner is the Austrian developer who is accusing the ruling party leader Jarosław Kaczyński of ‘cheating’ him over a real estate project. He has now made an accusation that Mr Kaczyński solicited a bribe for a former priest, member of the Board of the foundation Mr Kaczyński chairs, so that he would vote for the development project.

According to the liberal daily “Gazeta Wyborcza” Mr Birgfellner, in giving testimony to the public prosecutor, has claimed that Mr Kaczyński asked him to give 100,000 PLN to Mr Rafał Sawicz, a former priest who is a member of the Lech Kaczyński Institute foundation’s board, to process approval for the development project. Mr Birgfellner agreed to pay 50,000 and said he would pay the remaining 50,000 when he had obtained credit and approval for the investment to proceed. The money was handed over in an envelope at the Law and Justice Party HQ to the unknown person, claims the Austrian developer.

As evidence to the testimony Mr Birgfellner has not produced any taped recording of his conversation with Mr Kaczyński. Instead he said that his wife (Mr Kaczyński’s niece) was witness to the event and showed proof that he had withdrawn 50,000 PLN from one of his bank accounts.

The Towergate revelations

“Gazeta Wyborcza” for the past three weeks has been publishing revelations based on taped conversations between the Austrian businessman, the husband of Mr Kaczyński’s niece, and Mr Kaczyński. The tapes prove Mr Kaczyński was attempting, through a foundation he chairs and the company that foundation owns, to activate a real estate project for building two high-rise building that would provide hotel, conference, office and living accommodation in a prime Warsaw location.

The Austrian developer accuses Mr Kaczyński of failing to ensure that he was remunerated for costs incurred and work done on the project. The project was cancelled when it became apparent that the Warsaw local authority, controlled by the liberal opposition to Poland’s ruling party, would not grant planning and building permission for the project, and when Mr Kaczyński and his associated got ‘cold feet’, fearing claims that they were creating a financial power base for the ruling party.

Mr Birgfellner did not have a contract for the work he carried out. However, he has presented an invoice and did receive a document from the company owned by the foundation which granted him the power of attorney to represent that company in processing the real estate project. The company disputes it ever received the invoice and clearly there is a dispute about what work and why was carried out by Mr Birgfellner. It is a kind of dispute which is usually settled out of court or in a civil court action. Mr Birgfellner has however decided to go to the public prosecutor to report the crime of deliberate deception by Mr Kaczyński.

Mr Kaczyński has been criticized for by-passing legislation which forbids political parties from being engaged in commercial activity. However, there is no law which prevents parliamentarians or political leaders from being chairmen of foundations and the onus of proof that the foundation is in any way financing the party lies on those making such claims. No evidence of such funding has as yet materialized.

The ruling party leader has threatened legal action against “Gazeta Wyborcza” and the opposition figures suggesting that he has broken the law. He views the revelations as an attempt to besmirch his good name and reputation.

The project and Poland’s planning regime

This is not the first time that a local authority in Poland is behaving in an arbitrary and totally discretionary way with regard to granting planning permission. And in doing so it is actually holding up both economic and city development. The project which the company wanted to run was to provide funds for NGOs and employment, and tax income for the local authority too.

But the local authority is blocking the investment for political reasons because it does not want conservative run NGOs to get money and for the former President Lech Kaczyński to have a building named after him, just as it has gone to extraordinary lengths to stop a major Warsaw avenue to be named after the deceased President and a statue erected in his honour.

Image problems

However, neither Mr Kaczyński nor the ruling party welcome the allegations. First of all it’s embarrassing that Mr Kaczyński has fallen foul of illicit recordings, a fate that befell senior figures in the previous ruling party five years ago.

Second, the tapes are being used to make Mr Kaczyński into a businessman mixing commercial interests with politics. The ruling party leader had for years succeeded in projecting an image of an ascetic figure uninterested in business affairs. Moreover, in reality his personal assets are very modest indeed. Now, he is being accused of being a wealthy man who hides his real wealth.

Third, the revelations have shown Mr Kaczyński was conducting business in a family circle and that his associates within the foundation and company who own the land, are closely connected to the ruling party,. It further transpired last week that one of these associates had in the 1980s been an informer of the secret police in communist times. Very embarrassing, as the ruling party and its leader have been advocates of strict legislation that reveals the communist past and debars former communist collaborators from public office.

Now the Austrian developer is upping the ante and accusing the ruling party leader of actually soliciting a bribe for one of the foundation’s officials. However, unless the Austrian has testimony of others or other form of proof for his claims, many will feel this is just another segment in the the smear campaign aimed at undermining Mr Kaczyński and instigated by an individual who feels financially wronged and Mr Giertych, a lawyer and former politician, who was once politically outplayed by Mr Kaczyński and is thirsty for revenge.