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On graveyard talks and secret agencies

Corruption scandals are shaking up Poland's political elite.

Poland's Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who shook up his government after accusations of corruption, speaks at the Polish Parliament in Warsaw, Oct. 8, 2009. (Peter Andrews/Reuters)

WARSAW — Corruption scandals — real or imagined — are one of the most powerful forces in Polish politics, having brought down governments in 2004 and 2006. Now they threaten the two-year-old administration of Prime Minister Donald Tusk.

The latest crisis exploded earlier in October, when the Rzeczpospolita newspaper published a transcript of bugged conversations between Zbigniew Chlebowski, then the powerful head of the parliamentary wing of the ruling Civic Platform party, and a casino owner.

One conversation, littered with foul language, took place at a graveyard and involved Chlebowski explaining that he was doing everything in his power to ensure that a law setting special fees on gambling machines would be scrapped.

Although there is no proof that any money changed hands, and no evidence that Chlebowski ever tried very hard to get the law changed, the taint of possible corruption pushed Tusk to act swiftly.

Chlebowski was sidelined from his parliamentary job. The sports minister, justice minister and powerful interior minister — Tusk’s No.2 in the party — all lost their posts. Again, not because there had been any charges filed against any of them, but simply because they had been mentioned in the recorded conversations.

Tusk was acting not just to clear his government of accusations of wrongdoing, but because he felt he was being attacked by Mariusz Kaminski, the head of Poland’s Anti-Corruption Bureau (CBA), a special secret police force set up in 2006 to combat high-level crime.

Kaminski had put the prime minister in a very delicate position. He had told him in August about the recordings, but had told Tusk not to warn the targets of the investigation, and to ensure that the gambling law not be changed. That meant that if Tusk acted, he could be accused of revealing a secret police operation, and if he did nothing he could be accused of tolerating corruption in the senior ranks of his government.

After reshuffling his cabinet, a furious Tusk moved to fire Kaminski, accusing him of “setting a trap.”

“If the head of a secret agency lies, and undermines the credibility of the prime minister, then we have two choices: either the prime minister changes the agency chief, or the agency chief changes the prime minister,” Tusk said after announcing he was going to get rid of Kaminski.