Ex-US ambassador accuses high-ranking Czech government official of corruption

Martin Barták, photo: CTK

Former US ambassador to the Czech Republic William Cabaniss has accused Czech ex-deputy defence minister Martin Barták of soliciting a bribe. The daily Mladá fronta Dnes quoted Mr Cabaniss on Friday as saying that in 2008, Mr Barták asked for “millions of dollars” for his assistance in solving problems the Czech truck maker Tatra had with a commission for the Czech army. Mr Barták, who now serves as deputy finance minister, has denied any wrongdoing.

Martin Barták,  photo: CTK
William Cabaniss, who served as US ambassador to Prague between 2004 and 2006, told the daily that then deputy defence minister Martin Barták had asked for the bribe in a casual conversation at a business event outside Washington, DC, in February 2008.

Mr Cabaniss, who accepted a seat on the supervisory board of the Czech truck maker Tatra after his term at the embassy expired, said Mr Barták offered to solve problems the company had with one of its suppliers, Praga, that could jeopardize a multi-billion crown deal for the delivery of trucks for the Czech army.

This is part of a phone conversation between the daily’s reporter and Mr Cabaniss which the daily placed on its website.

“At some point in the conversation, he said: ‘For a certain amount of money’ – I don’t remember the exact amount – ‘the problems between Tatra and Praga can be solved. I didn’t respond, I thought it was a very unusual and out-of-order conversation for someone at the Defence Ministry, and I walked away and had no further conversation with him.”

William Cabaniss
MFD: Can you name the deputy?

“It was Martin Barták.”

The daily said that a Tatra representative in the US, Duncan Sellars, witnessed the conversation and confirmed Mr Cabaniss’ allegations.

For his part, Martin Barták, who went on to become defence minister and now serves as deputy finance minister, denies any such conversation took place. He could not be reached for comment on Friday but issued a statement in which he said he was considering legal steps to contest the “libel”.

The latest corruption allegations, however, are not the first to smear him. During his time at the defence ministry, he oversaw several arms deals that were later criticized as non transparent and overpriced. These include the purchases of the armoured vehicles Pandur, the Spanish CASA aircraft, as well as the deal with Tatra itself.

It therefore came as a surprise when in August, Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek, himself a veteran of corruption allegations, named Mr Barták his deputy. Commentator Erik Best says that the finance minister might be the real target in the scandal, given the fact that the allegations only appeared two years after Mr Barták allegedly made his offer.

“My suspicion is that there is an effort to get rid of Mr Barták, who allegedly asked for the bribe – and I think that’s probably something that would benefit the country – but that the people involved are not really intent on exposing corruption per se, but their main aim is to undermine Mr Barták and even Mr Kalousek.”

Also, neither of the two men who were present when Mr Barták allegedly asked for the bribe can remember how much he actually requested. That could seriously diminish the chances of the case being properly investigated. Erik Best again.

Photo: Barbora Kmentová
“They can’t remember how much of a bribe he asked for. So if they can’t remember the exact number, how can they argue very convincingly that they can remember the conversation correctly? So I think it certainly gives indication of illegal or dishonest activity on the part of Mr Barták, but when it comes to proof, I think that can be a different matter.”

Czech police have launched an investigation into the matter. Meanwhile, Czech Prime Minister Petr Nečas said on Friday the affair could negatively affect the country’s relations with the United States, and asked Mr Barták to take a leave from office until the investigation is over.