By Constantinos Psillides
Former Paphos mayor Savvas Vergas and suspended Paphos Sewerage Board (SAPA) manager Eftychios Malekkides were behind bars at the Nicosia central prison on Wednesday afternoon after they both pleaded guilty to charges relating to bribery and corruption.
Vergas pleaded guilty to 11 charges, including bribery, corruption, and money laundering, while Malekkides pleaded guilty to 12 charges.
Both are to remain at the central prison until the sentence hearing on Friday.
Vergas admitted to receiving €520,000 in bribes and Malekkides pleaded guilty to receiving €498,000. They are both in the process of paying the money back to the state.
The scandal, which came to light last year after a report filed by Auditor-general Odysseas Michaelides, involves kickbacks construction companies were sometimes asked to pay to certain officials to secure contracts and to have projects run smoothly. The scam saddled the municipality, and subsequently the taxpayer, with extra costs due to often-unnecessary additional work on the project. The SAPA project came in some €40 million over budget.
Three of the remaining defendants, former DISY municipal councillor Giorgos Michaelides, former DIKO councillor Efstathios Efstathiou and former AKEL councillor Vasos Vasiliou have pleaded not guilty. The first hearing on their case has been set for April 20. They are faced with a total of 42 charges.
Another defendant, AKEL municipal councillor Giorgos Shialis told the court that he would raise objections to the charges against him. The court has decided to hear Shialis’ arguments on March 3.
The Paphos Assize Court comprises president Dora Socratous, Senior District Judge Lia Markou, and District Assize Court judge Michalis Droushiotis.
Vergas’ fall from grace started last September, after a suspicious land-zoning case, involving construction company Aristo Developers, came to light.
While the mayor wasn’t directly involved in the case initially, it was later discovered by police that Vergas’ close associate Maria Solomonidou sent threatening texts to people who brought the case to light.
A forensic study carried by UK experts showed that Vergas had spoken to Solomonidou seconds before she sent the threatening texts and that they were within close vicinity of each other when the texts were sent.
Further investigation of municipality affairs revealed more alleged shady dealings involving the former mayor, including granting a tax exemption for a charity concert whose organisers kept the money, and building a personal swimming pool on public land next to his home.
Vergas was first arrested on October 10. On October 23 he issued a statement saying that he would not resign but would abstain from his duties pending the resolution of the case.
On November 4 Vergas gave a much anticipated press conference where he insisted he was innocent of all accusations and that he didn’t intend to resign because doing so “would show that I was guilty.”
On November 27, Vergas along with Malekkides and the former municipal councillor for DISY Giorgos Michaelides first appeared in court in relation with the SAPA scandal. About a week later, on December 2, Vergas’ pledge to keep hold of the municipality’s reins came to an end. In a letter addressed to Interior Minister Socratis Hasikos, while in custody, Vergas stepped down as mayor but still maintained that he was innocent.
That also didn’t last long. On December 5 police arrested his wife Sofia, after Greek businessman Christos Drakopoulos told police that he had deposited €85,000 in her bank account so that his company Envitec could secure a contract to build a waste management plant. The very next day, Vergas requested a meeting with police investigators and admitted to all charges. His statement, along with that of Malekkides, who cooperated with authorities three weeks after Vergas did, allowed the legal services to build a case against the municipal councillors.
Malekkides’ statement also implicated EDEK MP Fidias Sarikas, who underwent five hours of questioning by police on Tuesday. Malekkides claimed Sarikas was the one who set him on the path of corruption, when in 2000 he forced him into accepting a bribe by a German-based company to secure a contract.
Sarikas dismisses all accusations made by Malekkides. While not officially confirmed, reports said that the legal services will also charge Sarikas within the coming days.