Donald Tusk, the head of the European Council, strongly defended his actions as Poland’s former prime minister during questioning Monday into a pyramid scheme that cheated thousands of Poles out of their savings.
In an emotional moment during the seven-hour hearing, which was televised live across Poland, Tusk told the ruling conservative party that it was using his questioning by a parliamentary committee for political purposes.
“You need this commission, you need this spectacle, to keep repeating … your insinuations, also on the subject of my family,” Tusk said.
Still, Tusk said during the questioning that he did not feel particularly threatened or the object of a witch hunt. He said he was confident in his actions as prime minister from 2007 to 2014.
Tusk said the hearing showed the weakness of the commission, which he said was trying to put blame on him.
Before the hearing, Tusk said he rearranged his EU calendar and showed up because he treats the commission’s work “seriously.”
“It was my obligation as a citizen,” he said.
Still, there was no escaping the political overtones of Monday’s interrogation, for there have been years of enmity between Tusk and Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Commentators on private TVN24 described the event as a public “grilling,” and it was widely seen as part of the conservative party’s efforts to discredit Tusk, a political foe who is still popular in Poland.
Tusk was sworn in by the special multi-party commission that has already questioned dozens of state officials in its efforts to pinpoint responsibility for the scam. Addressing him as “prime minister” the commission sought to determine the scope of Tusk’s authority over state security and other offices and when he was made aware of the pyramid scheme by the Amber Gold financial institution.
Prosecutors say some 19,000 investors lost over 850 million zlotys ($225 million) in what turned out to be one of the biggest financial scandals in Poland. Amber Gold’s two founders are both under arrest in prison and are on trial facing up to 15-year sentences. One of them is also serving a prison term for another bank scam.
The scam, which was revealed in 2012, has raised questions about the effectiveness of Poland’s government during Tusk’s term in office. Critics say Polish authorities failed to react in time to warning signals about Amber Gold.
Rejecting these allegations, Tusk said a warning against Amber Gold was issued by the Polish Financial Supervision Commission, or KNF, and it was not the prime minister’s job to issue such a warning.
“While I have sympathy for those who invested in Amber Gold, because they are the victims of these dealings, I want to say that a warning by the KNF that it was linked to very high risk was publicly available,” Tusk said.
He suggested that some anti-crime procedures had failed in the Amber Gold case, as well as fiscal controls and the office for protecting consumers.
“In the Amber Gold case, had all the links described in the procedure worked as they should have, we would have probably managed to avoid the lion’s share of the losses that people sustained,” Tusk said.
One of the themes of the investigation and of Monday’s questioning was the fact that Tusk’s son Michal was employed by an airline owned by Amber Gold. Tusk denied allegations that his son’s job could have served as a protective umbrella for the pyramid scheme.
The televised questioning came a day after Poland’s populist ruling party suffered a blow in the country’s mayoral races by failing to win control of any of the nation’s largest cities. The pyramid probe commission’s own chief, Malgorzata Wassermann of Law and Justice, lost her bid to become mayor of the city of Krakow.
In Sunday’s runoff races, Poles chose the mayors of 649 cities, towns and local municipalities across the central European nation of 37 million, handing landslide victories to opposition politicians in top cities. Polish media described the results as a clear defeat for Law and Justice.
Tusk said he was “very surprised by the scale of Law and Justice’s defeat” and said the opposition got a boost from the local elections.
The vote highlighted the deep political divisions in Poland between the country’s urban liberals and its staunchly conservative, often older, rural residents.
For his part, Kaczynski claims that negligence under Tusk was the reason for the 2010 plane crash in which his twin brother, President Lech Kaczynski, was killed. Tusk and the president had a rocky relationship.
However, the investigation into the plane crash in Smolensk, Russia — which killed 96 state, military and other officials — said it was due to human error amid poor visibility at a rudimentary airport.