Two former mayors of Prague were handed suspended prison sentences and fines by the Prague Municipal Court on Thursday for their part in managing the city’s controversial multipurpose transport pass Opencard. The ruling, which will now be subject to appeals, is the latest chapter in a highly-publicized case going back a decade.
Former Civic Democrat mayor of Prague Bohuslav Svoboda received a 2.5 year suspended prison sentence for breach of the public trust, while his successor, TOP 09 mayor Tomáš Hudeček, was given a two-year suspended sentence on Thursday. Three other city officials, including former councillors, were also found guilty by the Prague Municipal Court, with ten others acquitted.
At issue was the implementation of Prague’s Opencard payment system for city transport, libraries and other services. Introduced back in 2006, the system soon attracted attention for massive cost overruns in the order of hundreds of millions of crowns, as well as allegedly disadvantageous contracts signed by the city with external firms. It was also discovered that revenues from the system were being siphoned off to an opaque network of private businesses, including to notorious billionaire political “godfather” Roman Janoušek.
Police began investigating Opencard – which is now being phased out, and was replaced by a new card called “Lítačka” back in March – as far back as 2010. The affair has also been the subject of a parliamentary inquiry as well as countless lawsuits flying between contractors and City Hall. The affair spans the reign of three Prague mayors, with the controversial card introduced during the era of Civic Democrat mayor Pavel Bém, who was in office from 2002-2010. Mr. Bém was not subject to the just concluded court case, but reacted to Thursday’s court verdict on Facebook by defending the system, and arguing that most problems related to Opencard’s implementation were the result of mistakes by his successors.
Meanwhile, former mayors Svoboda and Hudeček rejected Thursday’s verdict, announcing they intend to lodge appeals, the latter describing the prosecution as politically motivated:
“I have said from the start that this was a made-to-order prosecution. It was ordered because I and my people ruffled some feathers when we started to clear up things pertaining to Prague’s transit system, and when we tried to serve Prague and the people of Prague and deliver some kind of prosperity.”
According to Judge Alexander Sotolář, who presided over the case, the men’s actions cost the city CZK 25 million in damages. State prosecutor Tomáš Lejnar, meanwhile, expressed his satisfaction with the verdict.
The case, which lasted for 57 days, centred on why the accused extended a contract with operator firm Haguess without a public tender. The case also focused on whether such an extension represented willful deception – resulting in potentially much longer prison sentences – or mere poor judgment. The defence argued that such an action had to be taken in order to prevent the collapse of the entire Opencard system. But this argument was rejected by the judge. Haguess was ultimately stripped of its association with the system in 2011, when it was directly taken over by the City of Prague, by which time 400,000 users had signed up.
Asides from suspended sentences, the Prague court ordered the five convicted in the case to pay fines of CZK 40,000 each. In total, the Opencard system is believed to have cost Prague as much as CZK 1.74 billion.
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