By Angelos Anastasiou
Former Laiki Bank strongman Andreas Vgenopoulos on Tuesday denied charges that ship-owner Michalis Zolotas, owner of the controversial Focus Maritime Corporation, is his “close friend and associate”, as allegations of the company being used as a slush fund to bribe political parties and state officials resurface.
Considered by many a key figure in the build-up to Cyprus’ banking meltdown in March 2013 through bad loans and investment bets, Vgenopoulos has trumpeted his innocence for years, accusing the
“Cypriot political and economic establishment” of trying to use him as a scapegoat.
At the core of charges against Vgenopoulos lie allegations of indirectly bribing Cypriot politicians and key officials, including former Central Bank governor Christodoulos Christodoulou, who was recently sentenced to five months in jail for failing to disclose €1 million he received from Focus Maritime Corporation to the taxman, a payment he maintained related to consultancy services for 10 years, as well as alleged payments of €2 million – also by Focus – to the island’s two largest political parties in the run-up to the 2008 presidential election.
Focus is owned by Greek shipping magnate Zolotas, described by many a “Vgenopoulos’ close friend and associate” – the implication being that Zolotas had greased the wheels of the political and financial world on Vgenopoulos’ behalf – a link flatly denied on more than one occasion by Vgenopoulos.
“I repeat once more that Mr Zolotas was neither my friend nor my associate,” Vgenopoulos’ statement read.
Vgenopoulos referred to an interview he gave to CyBC presenter Elita Michaelides last June, in which he revealed that prior to any purported link between him and Zolotas, the Greek ship-owner already had business interests in Cyprus and had teamed up with important Cypriot businessmen, who later went on to take political appointments.
“This includes two of Zolotas’ business partners as early as 2005,” Vgenopoulos said.
“One is Mr Stavros Stavrou, who was appointed chairman of Cyprus Airways in 2012 by Mr Christofias, and the other is Mr Takis Clerides, Finance minister during Glafcos Clerides’ term in office, and treasurer for the Cyprus Ship-owners Association.”
“Therefore, any investigation that should be carried out, if not already underway, should relate to the origin and beneficiaries of funds invested in Mr Zolotas’ ships, as well as any links these funds may have had to the money that found its way to the two parties’ coffers.”
Vgenopoulos insisted he was in no way linked to any money that may have been paid by Focus to politicians or state officials.
“As far as I am concerned, the merciless attacks I am being subjected to by Cypriot political parties prove that I have never sought, or achieved, any dealings with the establishment,” he declared.
Meanwhile, in a letter of response to a statement issued by Vgenopoulos on Monday announcing journalist Costas Vaxevanis’ conviction to 26 months in jail – suspended for three years – for slanderous claims, the journalist implied that justice had not been served at the trial and implied that vested interests both in Greece and Cyprus are trying to silence him.
“In Cyprus, a commission was set up to investigate the economic collapse, reports and classified documents were submitted and witnesses testified, but Greek justice showed no interest in any of it,” Vaxevanis charged.
“I’m not sure the Cypriot justice system cared any more, but I am talking about the Greek authorities,” he added.
During the libel trial, the journalist claimed, Vgenopoulos argued that through his press reports, Vaxevanis defended Cypriot interests against those of Greece, and that his aim was for Cyprus to get out of paying Vgenopoulos €4 billion.
“That is what Andreas Vgenopoulos said, and that is what some in Cyprus – who speak lightly of my conviction – are snickering about,” Vaxevanis’ letter read.
Suggesting that justice was not served during the libel trial, the Greek journalist said he would be seeking his vindication through the appeals process, and “if necessary, by European courts”.
“Cypriots can rest assured that all documents will be submitted to state prosecutors, whether the Cypriot authorities release them or not,” he warned.