ATHENS (AFP) – Greece’s new anti-corruption tsar Panagiotis Nikoloudis has been tasked with recovering 2.5 billion euros ($2.8 billion) for the debt-strapped government’s coffers through a ruthless crackdown on tax evasion.
The former Supreme Court deputy prosecutor and Greece’s first ever anti-corruption minister told AFP he was itching to tackle the scourge blamed for the country’s financial woes and its lack of credibility among its EU peers.
“I’ve heard so many times ‘we’re going to fight corruption’, always ‘we’re going to, we’re going to’, and I was speechless, thinking ‘but why don’t we do it now?’” the 65-year old said in an interview.
“If the new government has come to see me it’s because it really wants to act,” said the bushy-eyebrowed minister, who describes himself as a stubborn man who “never stops, even when I hit a wall”.
Waging war on corruption was one of the left-wing government’s electoral promises, and Nikoloudis is under pressure to produce results that can be used as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Greece’s creditors.
His said his first mission was to hunt down and recover several billion euros of undeclared taxes.
As the outgoing head of the independent money laundering authority, Nikoloudis has already handed 3,200 files to the Financial Crimes Squad (SDOE), which he believes are almost entirely “the fruits of tax evasion”.
The cases, which involve hundreds of bank accounts in Greece and abroad, are estimated to be worth some 6.4 billion euros, of which 2.5 billion euros ($2.83 billion) are owed to the government, he said.
Such funds are desperately needed to finance a series of urgent social measures that the government of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has promised to implement to help Greeks hit hardest by a six-year recession.
The files are just a small part of the 28,000 cases that the money laundering authority has combed through since 2011, but they are “the most glaring, the most serious”.
The key to recovering the money, Nikoloudis says, lies in overhauling a cumbersome bureaucratic system in which endless red tape creates a “bottleneck” at tax offices where cases grind to a halt.
If he cannot change the system “it will be a failure for the large part, because the tax will be paid one day — but when? Time is our problem,” he said.
He would like to see a simpler method, where evaders are offered a partial amnesty to coax them into paying up.
The SDOE crimes squad “is an organisation that has a stigma attached to it – half the people there are said to be corrupt. I don’t deny there is some truth in it,” he said.
Nikoloudis is relying on his own squeaky clean reputation to inspire his troops.
“Everyone deserves a second chance. I’m going to ask the staff if they can work in line with my principles,” he said, admitting that “some people will not change.”
After tax evasion, he promises to move against other financial crimes such as cigarette and fuel smuggling.
“An EU ambassador once told me we could solve our debt problem by optimising our customs offices,” he said.
But Nikoloudis is nothing if not a realist.
“I do not plan to solve everyday corruption. I am no Don Quixote,” he said.