Political scandal, what political scandal?

The financing scandal that hit the former ruling Civic Democratic Party in 1996, and sped up the demise of its coalition government in late 1997, is a complex and at times rather surreal affair, with comic twists and turns, loopholes in the law, forgetful witnesses and one who sent a note saying basically: "I'm not coming, I might get in trouble." Sound confusing? It is, but I am going to do my best to explain the ins and outs.

The drama all began in 1995, when a former tennis-player-turned-businessman, a Mr. Milan Srejbr, suddenly decided that he wanted to donate fifteen million Czech crowns, or nearly four hundred thousand dollars, to the Civic Democratic Party, which was then the major partner in a centre-right coalition government. Mr. Srejbr was apparently not acting out of any firm political beliefs, but because he wanted to a buy a steel mill that was going to be privatised. It may come as no surprise that he did buy the steel mill, and the government decided the issue. Now, in order to remove any suspicion that the Civic Democrats may have been unduly influenced by the arrival of fifteen million Czech crowns in their bank account, someone in the party's leadership, we don't know who, decided to create four fake sponsors, and divide the donations between them.

This, thought our mystery man or woman, was doubly smart, because by dividing up the money, the four fictitious sponsors would have made donations that were too small to be taxed, and so the party would save forty thousand dollars in taxes. Sounds pretty smart, doesn't it? Until, of course, it was discovered that one of the sponsors had not only never heard of the Civic Democrats, he had no idea where the Czech Republic was. If you think that that is comical, it gets worse. One of the sponsors must have been very talented indeed, as he managed to make his donation after his own death.

When the news of all of this nonsense hit the headlines, it hastened the demise of Civic Democrat Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus' government in 1997. The scandal continued for come time, but Mr. Klaus and the party leadership remained tight-lipped, and refused to discuss the matter.

It was not until this year that charges were filed against the former deputy chairman of the Civic Democrats, Libor Novak, who was the party's financial director at the time of the fake donations. His defence was an interesting twist of logic. He claimed that he was just in charge, and that although he signed the party's accounting forms, he could not guarantee that any of the information inside was the truth. What is the point, as some people have rightly pointed out, of signing something in the first place? And JUST in charge?

As a quick aside, this has been a common thread of many scandals in this country over the past few years. The former general director of one of the country's largest banks recently commented on fraudulent practises at the bank while he was in charge, by saying that it wasn't his fault, he was ONLY the boss. That raises the question of what is the good of having bosses, if they are unable to take responsibility.

Anyway, back to Mr. Novak. During his trial, past and present members of the Civic Democrat leadership were put on the stand, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, none of them could remember a thing. None of them were at meetings when the matter was discussed, or if they were, they were having a cigarette or coffee break. To make matters worse, the chief witness in the case, Milan Srejbr, the man who gave the money to the Civic Democrats in the first place, and received a steel mill for his trouble, had moved to the US, and refused to come back to the Czech Republic for the trial. Instead, he sent a note, saying that he would not testify, because he might get into trouble.

And the final result? Although the court was certain that a crime had been committed, there was no proof as to who had committed it. Mr. Novak's signature on the party's accounts was insufficient proof of guilt, so he was acquitted. The same thing happened this week at the Court of Appeal. The judges involved knew someone in the party's leadership is as guilty as the day is long, but they do not know who.

The funny thing is that if this had happened in the West, one or more of the party's top people would have taken responsibility and stepped down, and very likely someone would have ended up in jail over the affair. This has not happened with the Civic Democrats. The party's top people are still in place, and carry on regardless. What causes me greater concern is that although a crime has been committed, and no-one has been punished for it, the Civic Democratic Party still tops most opinion polls. Last week it obtained the best results in regional elections, and came second in Senate elections. Ultimately, ordinary Czechs are going to have to learn that politicians should be held accountable to the people who give them their mandates, the voters themselves. Until then, I don't see any way that political accountability is going to miraculously materialise on its own.