Finance minister under fire over suspicious debt settlement

Jan Fischer, photo: CTK

The finance minister in the new Czech interim government, Jan Fischer, has come under fire over his own financial record. Soon after he was linked with the post, Mr Fischer received over five million crowns from sponsors to settle debts stemming from his presidential campaign. That has earned him conflict of interest accusations, and could also threaten the future of the cabinet.

Jan Fischer,  photo: CTK
Jan Fischer was unable to settle his campaign debts for months after his failed presidential bid in January. However, as soon as it became clear he was going to become finance minister, it only took him six days to get the money.

He received 5.3 million crowns – most of it in cash – from sponsors including Czech steel tycoon Tomáš Chrenek, energy entrepreneur Ladislav Dráb and Israeli businessman David Sidor. That was more than enough to clear his debts.

Mr Fischer and his former campaign team have since said the timing was just a coincidence, as his sponsors had pledged their contributions some time ago. Nevertheless, critics have suggested he may now feel the need to reward his sponsors in some way – a claim he denied last week.

Photo: Barbora Kmentová
“That’s out of the question. No paybacks. No one counts on it, and no one ever did, it’s out of the question. By the way, the names of my sponsors are publicly known, and I’m sure you will keep an eye on all the processes, and so will I. So to make it short – no way.”

However, the question has not gone away and on Monday Jan Fischer asked two of his sponsors to provide information about the source of their donations. If they fail to do so by Wednesday, he said he would send the money back.

Mr Fischer has also come under pressure from several of the parties in the lower house. Bohuslav Sobotka is the chairman of the Social Democrats.

“The problem is not only that the way Mr Fischer paid his debts from the presidential campaign puts his credit as a politician into question. The problem is that he is now in a serious conflict of interest. As the finance minister, he is in charge of the ministry’s analytical department which investigates money laundering. There is only one way for Jan Fischer to solve this conflict – to step down as finance minister.”

Bohuslav Sobotka,  photo: CTK
On Wednesday, MPs are scheduled to vote on dissolving the lower house. If the motion passes – which seems unlikely at the moment – snap elections would follow within 60 days.

If that does not happen, deputies will then vote on confidence in the Rusnok cabinet. In that case, questions over Mr Fischer’s financial propriety could prove a stumbling block for potential backers such as the Communists and the Social Democrats.