New twist in murky smart card saga

Photo: CTK

When a smart card system was introduced in Prague in the mid 2000s to serve for public transport and other amenities, it may have seemed like one more step in the city’s transformation into a modern metropolis. However, more or less from the off the Opencard has been dogged by controversy and allegations of corruption. Now, in the latest twist, almost the entire city council are facing criminal charges in connection with the system.

Photo: CTK
The city of Prague’s official website calls the Opencard a “smart card that will make your life in the city easier” and “your convenience card”. In the region of a million residents use the Opencard as a travel pass, and it can also be used at libraries and for other services.

But what may make life easier for citizens has not been good for the capital’s financial health. The system was heavily criticized from pretty much the moment it was approved in 2005 by a city coalition of the Civic and Social Democrats, headed by the former’s Pavel Bém, and many were shocked to learn the cost of the project: a staggering CZK 1.25 billion, or over USD 60 million.

Three separate audits concluded that the system had been overpriced, leading the police to open an investigation in 2010. The main beneficiary of the deal had been a company called Haguess, which operates the Opencard and whose ownership is murky.

Bohuslav Svoboda,  photo: CTK
Cut to Tuesday morning, when the current Prague council, a coalition of the Civic Democrats and TOP 09, had a session interrupted by unusual visitors: members of the police’s organised crime unit delivering indictments for 10 of the 11 members, including Mayor Bohuslav Svoboda of the Civic Democrats.

The charges – of infringement of competition regulations and breach of trust – are the first filed against any politicians in connection with the controversial card system. They relate to a decision last year to award further contracts to Haguess, this time to extend the system, in a closed tender process. The police say the work was overpriced by about a third.

The aldermen and women have reacted furiously, describing the police intervention as politically motivated. What’s more, they contend that they had no alternative but to hire Haguess, which they say was the only company capable of the necessary extension of the cards of 300,000 people.

The indicted councillors, who could face up to eight years in jail if found guilty, say they have been forced to work around a mess of corruption inherited from the previous leadership – and the alternative to signing the deal would have been to abandon the extremely costly system all together.

Pavel Bém,  photo: Alžběta Švarcová
Adding insult to injury, former mayor Pavel Bém – the father of the project – has been firing potshots at the council and called on them to resign.

What happens next is anyone’s guess, though it is not uncommon for cases in this country to begin dramatically before being quietly shelved. In any case, the inglorious history of the Opencard just got a bit more inglorious.