Eurostat voices concern over case against Greek statistics chief

By George Georgiopoulos

ATHENS, Feb 8 (Reuters) - The European Union's statistics agency said on Friday it is "deeply concerned" at charges against Greece's statistics chief as the data he is accused of inflating had passed stringent checks to ensure complied with European law.

A Greek prosecutor filed felony charges against the chief of statistics agency ELSTAT, Andreas Georgiou, and two other ELSTAT employees last month over allegations that they falsified the country's 2009 fiscal data.

Georgiou has denied any wrongdoing, and Greek government officials have also defended his record. Eurostat, which has come to Georgiou's defence in the past, said it was worried the case could have repercussions beyond the country.

"We ... wish to express our deep concern at recent developments with regard to ELSTAT, which can affect not only the integrity of the country's official statistics but also the functioning of the EU statistical system as a whole," Eurostat said in a statement released by ELSTAT on Friday.

Questioning the validity of data that follow stringent quality checks and fully comply with EU laws seemed to disregard commonly-agreed EU procedures, Eurostat warned.

Deficit and debt figures are produced according to "very precise standards under a strict European legal framework" and are closely scrutinised before they are approved, the agency said, urging Greek authorities to protect ELSTAT from political interference.

The charges against Georgiou stem from accusations by a dismissed employee that the agency chief inflated 2009 deficit figures as part of a German-led conspiracy to justify the austerity that came with the country's bailout.

Georgiou, a 52-year old veteran International Monetary Fund statistician, has said Greece's decision to ask its international partners for help was based on statistics produced by his predecessors, long before he was put in charge of ELSTAT.

Unreliable Greek statistics and frequent data revisions have been blamed in part for pushing Greece into a financial crisis.

Georgiou was brought in as ELSTAT chief in 2010 to overhaul the agency and improve its data.

In November 2010, shortly after he took over, Greece's 2009 budget deficit was revised to more than 15 percent of gross domestic product from 13.6 percent, revealing the scale of its fiscal derailment that led to a severe debt crisis.

If convicted on charges of breach of faith - a crime that usually applies to those who embezzle or misuse public funds - Georgiou could face at least five years in jail.

Greek government officials have defended Georgiou's record, saying he worked closely with Eurostat to streamline methods and provide credible figures despite resistance from within the agency. (Editing by Deepa Babington)