Fresh wiretap scandal shows lobbyist’s influence over Prague City Hall

Pavel Bém, photo: Tomáš Adamec

A new scandal has thrown more light on how deals were made at Prague City Hall, which has frequently come under fire for corrupt practices and cronyism. Leaked phone wiretaps, recorded by the Czech secret service, show how former Prague mayor Pavel Bém’s decisions were supervised by a powerful lobbyist. The police have now launched an investigation into both the contents of the recordings, and how they were leaked.

Roman Janoušek,  Pavel Bém,  photo: Czech Television
Then Prague Mayor Pavel Bém spoke in 2007 to lobbyist and construction tycoon Roman Janoušek about who should be appointed head of a state-owned health insurance company. This is one of the wiretaps, recorded by the Czech intelligence services that have been leaked to the press.

In other recordings, Mr Bém is discussing the city’s zoning plan which is crucial for the construction businesses, and sale of city property. Sometimes, the two callers used code words such as “dead horse”, “Maori princess” and “Comrade Stump”.

When reporters for the daily Mladá fronta Dnes, which broke the story, asked Pavel Bém about the recordings, the former mayor and current Civic Democrat MP questioned their authenticity, and said the allegations were sickening. His party boss, Prime Minister Petr Nečas however took the issue more seriously.

Petr Nečas,  photo: CTK
“Let me stress that these are things that happened in the past. Since I became party leader, Mr Bém has left all his posts. I want to analyze all the information that is coming out and I will want to talk to Mr Bém about it. The situation is serious and we will have a very serious conversation.”

The police said on Friday that their organized crime and anti-corruption units would investigate the recordings to see whether any crime was committed. But commentator Erik Best says the conversations are too vague to provide any direct evidence of corruption.

“One thing that Mladá fronta Dnes revealed on Friday was that Mr Bém had a separate telephone he used when he wanted to discuss very sensitive information. Because of that, I think that from these wiretaps, we will only get information that is vague and that gives us an indication of what was happening but I don’t think we will get any solid proof of any illegal activity or deals.”

Vít Bárta
Meanwhile, the Czech intelligence service, the BIS, said they would launch a probe into how the wiretaps were leaked which is no less interesting. Two years after the recordings were made, they found their way to a private security agency ABL owned at that time by Vít Bárta, the future leader of the political party Public Affairs, part of the current centre-right Czech government.

Mr Bárta himself is now being tried for allegedly buying his party MPs’ loyalty. This gave rise to allegations that the recordings’ surfacing might have been a warning to the Civic Democrats who control the Justice Ministry not to push too hard for his conviction.