The regional court in Prague on Thursday passed a verdict in one of the most closely watched court cases in the country’s modern history. David Rath, a former high ranking member of the Social Democratic Party and governor of Central Bohemia, was found guilty of corruption and manipulating public tenders.
Photographers and TV crews camped outside the building of the Prague regional court on Thursday to report on the outcome of the biggest corruption case in the country’s modern history. David Rath, a former health minister and subsequently governor of Central Bohemia, who was accused of being at the center of an intricate web of corruption in the region he governed– was notably absent. Three years after getting caught red-handed with seven million crowns of bribe money stuffed in a wine box David Rath was found guilty of manipulating public tenders, taking bribes and harming the financial interests of the EU. He was sentenced to 8.5 years in jail and a seizure of assets. A close associate, Slovak entrepreneur Lucia Novanska who helped him organize the rigged tenders, was likewise found guilty.
According to Judge Robert Pacovsky the two were at the top of a crime ring operating in the region. Rath’s two close associates who were charged in the case and sentenced in a separate trial – the head of the regional hospital Katerina Kottova and her now husband Petr Kott – were sentenced to 7.5 years and forfeited 30 million crowns found in their home in cash. They were found guilty of taking bribes and manipulating public tenders for hospital procurement. Seven others who were also accused of corruption linked to contracts for the renovation of the local Bustehrad chateau also heard guilty sentences. Ivana Salacova, a businesswoman who turned state’s evidence alone received a suspended sentence and a million crown fine. She provided valuable evidence that helped bring the case to a close, confirming deals that were alluded to in wiretappings and helped to throw light on the way the web of corruption in Central Bohemia operated.
David Rath, who made a 12 hour closing speech in his defense, called the case “a political show trial” and told Czech Television he would appeal the verdict. He insists that he was framed and that the allegations to money which he repeatedly made in tapped phone conversations presented to the court were linked to sponsor money that was meant for his party’s election campaign. However he was never able to prove this and his insinuations that he would reveal information damaging to his party and others never materialized.
The former health minister and governor is so far the biggest fish caught in the net of the state attorney’s anti-corruption drive. However what commentators consider particularly significant is the fact that the companies who offered bribes on a regular basis to get an edge over the competition have not gone unscathed. The construction firm Konstruktiva Branko, once a lead player in the construction business with billion crown deals and million crown profits, is now in the red and the firm that procured medical equipment for the said hospital has also seen severe financial losses, complaining that it is being cold-shouldered by potential clients and rejected by banks and insurance companies.
Although the verdicts in the notorious Rath case are not legally binding, the present outcome is seen as a positive signal not just on the domestic scene but in Brussels where corruption has been perceived as a big problem in EU funding. Part of the money involved in the irregular deals –approximately 200 million crowns – came from EU funds and the Czech Republic will now have to cover them from its own resources.