Polish govt hostage to compromised official who won’t go

This undated handout photo provided by Poland's Supreme Audit Office shows an official photograph of the office's president, Marian Banas. Poland's ruling right-wing party begins its second term caught up in a crisis over Banas, who faces allegations of wrongdoing but refuses to resign and cannot easily be removed from his job. (Marek Brzeziński/Supreme Audit Office via AP)

WARSAW, Poland — Poland’s right-wing ruling party has seen the start of its second term hijacked by the country’s chief auditor, who is suspected of financial wrongdoing but refuses to resign and cannot easily be removed from his job.

Marian Banas, 64, is the appointed president of the Supreme Audit Office, an independent institution charged with ensuring public funds are spent properly.

But Banas himself faces questions about where he acquired his personal wealth and whether he rented out a home to a criminal network that used it for a brothel.

Banas says the suspicions are based on “lies” and alleges he has been made the “object of a brutal political game”

The crisis is the latest in a string of alleged scandals involving members of the ruling Law and Justice party, which has tried to cast itself as a model of clean government since it came to power in 2015.

The party won the right to continue governing with 44% of the vote in an October election. Recent opinion surveys showed its support with Poles of voting age slipping to between 35% and 40%.

Law and Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski has skillfully nipped other growing scandals in the bud and has made it clear he wants Banas, a former loyalist, to resign.

Government critics say the stalemate reflects the chaos and divisions the populist ruling party has created while governing Poland.

The party’s nomination of Banas as chief auditor was viewed as a reward for his performance heading up the national tax and customs administration. There, Banas oversaw a crackdown on tax fraud that helped finance the party’s flagship social benefits program.

Law and Justice has a majority in parliament, and lawmakers approved Banas’ appointment in August despite the opposition raising concerns about alleged irregularities in his finances and his prolonged vetting.

Weeks later, private broadcaster TVN24 reported that Banas rented out a home he owned to what appeared to be a sex business that offered rooms by the hour.

The channel’s report also asked how Banas, who spent years in moderately paid state jobs, could have afforded the large house in the historic city of Krakow.

At first, the ruling party defended Banas, calling the TV story “fake news” and giving assurances of the auditor’s integrity. The then-Senate speaker, a Law and Justice member , described Banas as “crystal clear.”

But Law and Justice leader Kaczynski and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki turned against Banas after the Central Anti-Corruption Bureau vetted four years’ worth of his asset declarations.

The bureau’s report remains classified information but officers there notified prosecutors of alleged wrongdoing.

Polish media have said the review turned up hundreds of thousands of unreported zlotys (tens of thousands of dollars) that Banas could not adequately explain.

Morawiecki and Kaczynski both have appealed to Banas repeatedly to step down. But he refused, declaring he was lawfully appointed and would continue serving his six-year term in the interest of the Supreme Audit Office’s stability.

He also has used his role as chief auditor to hit back at the government, telling prosecutors about alleged corruption and mismanagement in the Justice Ministry’s program for prison inmates.

Polish law makes it extremely hard t o fire the chief auditor, who has immunity from prosecution unless parliament lifts it.

To protect the person holding the job from retaliation for exposing wrongdoing, he only can be removed from office if he is convicted of a crime or concealed past collaboration with Poland’s communist-era secret service.

Kaczynski has said he hopes Banas will not invoke his immunity protection but instead use “common sense” and resign rather than leave it up to the criminal justice system to resolve the matter.

Morawiecki has said Law and Justice was “weighing legal steps that could end this situation that is disadvantageous to the prestige of the Supreme Audit Office and to the state.” The prime minister also suggested the party was considering seeking changes to the Polish Constitution so Banas could be canned.

Such an amendment would require support from the political opposition, which is angry over what it sees as the governing party’s disregard for the rule of law and says it will not contribute the needed votes.

“You cannot change the Constitution of a 38-million nation for just one man,” said Senate Speaker Tomasz Grodzki, of the main opposition party, Civic Platform. “I think this is some power game inside Law and Justice, and it’s getting ever tougher.”

As auditor, Banas has wide access to state secrets and the power to screen the finances of the government and of important state institutions like the National Bank of Poland.

Commenting on the allegations targeting the Justice Ministry, Deputy Infrastructure Minister Marcin Horala, says Banas “might perhaps be treating the auditing office as a tool of his personal vendetta.”

Banas refused a recent request to appear before a Senate commission.

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