Transport Minister Vít Bárta resigns over corruption allegations

Ministro de Transportes, Vít Bárta. Foto: ČTK

Five days of scandal rocking the Public Affairs party came to a head on Friday with the resignation from the cabinet of the man recognised as the party’s unofficial leader, Transport Minister Vít Bárta. After seeming to consolidate support in the party, amid allegations he had bought the silence and loyalty of certain members with up to a million crowns or more, Mr Bárta announced we would be leaving so as not to damage the government’s ongoing work on reforms.

Vít Bárta, photo: CTK
It the past week it had looked like anything could happen with Public Affairs – that Vít Barta would have to go, that he would stay and the Public Affairs party would simply purge its dissenters, and even that the government coalition could crumble before its first anniversary. Two high-ranking members, Jaroslav Škárka and Kristýna Kočí, had filed criminal charges against the party’s grey eminence, accusing him of trying to bribe them.

The end game though belonged to the prime minister. In the first half of the week, Petr Nečas seemed to put his faith in his junior coalition partners, that they would sort the affair out properly on their own. Instead of divesting themselves of the controversial Bárta though, the Public Affairs captaincy deflected the blame on to the mutineers, who the chairman said were blackmailing the transport minister, eliciting loans of at least 670,000 crowns from him, and then pressing charges against him for bribery.

Kristýna Kočí, Jaroslav Škárka, photo: CTK
This, even if true, is a ham-fisted defence, since politicians promising transparency can hardly hand out hundred-thousand-crown loans on word of honour, in cash, with no contract or even I.O.U. The arguments against the ostensible whistleblowers were delivered caustically and gracelessly, complete with snide asides about Kočí needing new expensive purses. Before Wednesday, Ms Kočí had been an inseparable aide to Radek John through thick and thin.

Thus, Public Affairs resolution was not the one the coalition leader was looking for and he apparently decided to make it for them. In what was perhaps the sternest address of his career, Mr Nečas said that there had never been another option, not even a second’s hesitation that things could have gone differently. Mr Barta’s behaviour was unacceptable, and the connections between his family’s detective agency and various ministries was absolutely a legitimate subject of concern.

Radek John, photo: CTK
There is going to be a shakeup now, and it is doubtful it will end with Vít Bárta; indeed it may not end with Public Affairs. Specifically mentioning the Interior Ministry – which is run by Public Affairs chairman Radek John and which controls the police – Mr Nečas promised a proper spring cleaning, and the public knows well which shelves in the cabinet are looking dirty. Education Minister Josef Dobeš, also of Public Affairs, has been wading in near-scandals since at least the end of last year. And before Mr Bárta’s problems emerged, all eyes were on Defence Minister Alexandr Vondra, of Mr Nečas’s own Civic Democratic Party, and the case of a missing 135 million crowns. The coalition’s credibility is now so badly compromised in the eyes of the public, that when Mr Nečas says there is going to be a shakeup, heads will have to roll on all sides.

There is more than ministerial positions in the mix here; Public Affairs controls four ministries and has staffed them with managers and clients from the ABL detective agency that Mr Bárta formerly owned, often in deputy ministerial positions. Hence it’s hard to imagine that Mr Nečas, in his present mood, will rid the cabinet of Bárta, perhaps even Radek John, but allow others from ABL to take their place.

Vít Bárta, photo: CTK
Meanwhile, the government coalition and its reforms are by no means out of peril thanks merely to the resignation of Vít Bárta. As the fallout settles, it will be most interesting – indeed crucial - to see what happens with the Interior Ministry. After that are plenty of other questions: will Radek John continue to chair Public Affairs, and how does this affect the party’s election of a chairman? How will the 18-some-odd MPs who have not played a direct role in this story, respond if the party is sidelined in the coalition? If indeed those MPs are as staunch supporters of Bárta and John as they seemed on Thursday, then they could potentially decide to oppose the government. In any case, the government seems to have at least three supporters in the dissident Public Affairs members who the party expelled, and to maintain a majority in such a worst case scenario it would need only another four such turncoats.

A special meeting of the K9 - three leaders from the three coalition parties – has been called for Friday afternoon.