On graveyard talks and secret agencies

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.

Kaminski, an intense man with a long career as a single-minded anti-communist revolutionary, had been chosen for the post by former Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who had made the battle against corruption a hallmark of his short and turbulent government. Kaminski was a member of parliament for Kaczynski’s Law and Justice party, and had no law enforcement experience.

Corruption had become the leading issue in Polish politics following the implosion of the ex-communist Democratic Left Alliance following a spectacular series of scandals. Kaczynski used the revulsion at the left’s behavior as a driver to create the CBA, an elite agency that would root out crime among political and business elites.

Civil libertarians warned that there were too few controls over the agency, and that Kaminski’s conspiratorial character made him a bad choice for such a sensitive post.

Despite its legal firepower, the CBA has had very few successes to its name. Its highest profile investigation was a sting operation against one of Kaczynski’s own coalition allies that backfired and ended up bringing down the Law and Justice party government. Kaminski now faces charges for the way his agents conducted that investigation.

After winning the 2007 elections, Tusk decided to leave Kaminski in place, even though he knew that the CBA chief was a political enemy. He says he wanted to ensure that members of his government would be careful to avoid any wrongdoing, knowing that Kaminski and his agents would be hunting for them.

“That was a big mistake, Kaminski has the nature of a scorpion, he’ll always attack because just the way he is,” says a former prime minister.

Now the fight over Kaminski is overshadowing the scandal within Tusk’s government. Lech Kaczynski, Poland’s president and the twin brother of the former prime minister, has become the CBA chief’s defender, insisting that Tusk has no right to fire him.

As he went, a defiant Kaminski and his allies within the agency dumped information for half-finished investigations, which accused the finance ministry, the stock exchange and the treasury ministry of impropriety.

The stakes for Lech Kaczynski and Tusk are very high. Both men are expected to run against each other in next year’s presidential elections. Kaczynski has had a very bumpy first presidential term, while Tusk has long held an overwhelming lead in opinion polls.