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WARSAW â€” The biggest danger to Polandâ€™s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party doesnâ€™t comes from the hapless opposition parties.
Rather, itâ€™s from Marian BanaÅ›, a compact 65-year-old karate black belt who heads the Supreme Audit Office (NIK) and who has unleashed his inspectors against key government officials.
In response, the government-controlled anti-corruption police (CBA) is probing BanaÅ›â€™s personal wealth after a building he owns was reportedly used as a brothel. Earlier this month, CBA agents conducted a raid on his sonâ€™s address.
Speaking to POLITICO, BanaÅ› called the allegations as a â€œsmear campaignâ€ aimed at ousting him from his role as a watchdog of state bodies.
From a conference room behind two sets of locked doors at the stately NIK headquarters in Warsaw, he detailed how for more than two years he and his family have been spied on by around 50 anti-corruption agents.Â
â€œThis reminds me of Bolshevik methods,â€ he said, recalling the surveillance tools used by the communist secret police in the 1980s. BanaÅ›, an activist in the anti-communist underground, was imprisoned in the early 1980s for his work with the Solidarity labor union.
BanaÅ›â€™s role as one of the leading enemies of the government is something of a surprise both to him and to the party that nominated him to his six-year term as NIK chief in 2019. Long associated with the nationalist and conservative right, BanaÅ› was once a tried-and-tested asset of PiS and first got top jobs during the partyâ€™s brief stint in power from 2005 to 2007, returning when PiS won power again in 2015.
He served as finance minister under Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki before moving to NIK â€” one of the countryâ€™s most powerful institutions thatâ€™s supposed to be used to keep an eye on public spending. However, Law and Justice has steadily eroded most checks and balances on its power, staffing top courts, control bodies and the state media with loyalists.
The problem for PiS is that BanaÅ› refuses to play along.
Attacking the auditor
Immediately after his appointment, media reported that a building he owns in the southern city of KrakÃ³w was being used as a by-the-hour hotel run by a person with underworld links. Anti-corruption authorities launched a probe and BanaÅ› went on a leave of absence.
At the same time, authorities uncovered a VAT fraud scheme being run out of the finance ministry, with one of the accused being a close associate of BanaÅ› when he was the minister. The allegations tarnished the ruling party ahead of the 2019 parliamentary election.
In response, PiS tried to get BanaÅ› to quit â€” with even party chief and Polandâ€™s de facto ruler JarosÅ‚aw KaczyÅ„ski putting pressure on him to go. Because the six-year-term of the NIK boss is written into the constitution, PiS mulled changing the rules to oust him.
But BanaÅ› â€” whose nickname is â€˜â€armored Marian,â€ comparing him to a tank that steadily crushes all opposition in his way â€” dug in his heels and refused to quit.
â€œWhen I was chosen as head of NIK, I immediately became uncomfortable,â€ said BanaÅ›. He said state services soon had him down as â€œeven dangerous.â€
BanaÅ› denies any wrongdoing. â€œThere are no legal proceedings against me â€¦ And that is the best proof that I am innocent, and that all this commotion â€¦ is a cunning PR move to destroy my profile and name.â€
His predecessor, Krzysztof Kwiatkowski, a former Polish justice minister and chief prosecutor who is now an independent senator, said he is â€œsurprisedâ€ that after almost three years of the investigation â€œdragging on,â€ it hasnâ€™t led to either an indictment or to the case being dropped and that there is â€œno resolution in sight.â€
â€œThe issue gives the impression of seeking to influence the president [of NIK],â€ he said.
A spokesperson for Polandâ€™s anti-corruption body (CBA) said that prosecutors were conducting â€œpreparatory proceedingsâ€ in the case of how BanaÅ› acquired earnings and property. The prosecutorâ€™s office did not respond to requests for comment.
Earlier this month, tensions escalated again when CBA agents staged a second raid on the chief auditorâ€™s son, Jakub BanaÅ›. His father called the search a â€œretaliationâ€ for a smoking-gun audit of last yearâ€™s abandoned presidential vote.
Last year, the government tried to hold the election in May, despite worries about the pandemic. When it became clear that in-person voting would be too dangerous, the government decided to hold a postal-only vote. It spent millions on postal ballots, despite having passed no law to actually hold such an election. In the end, the election was shifted to July and the postal ballots were junked; so far no official has been held responsible for spending the money without authorization.
Last year a court in Warsaw ruled that Morawiecki committed â€œgross violation of the lawâ€ when ordering preparations for an all-postal vote before relevant legislation was passed by parliament.
NIK is now also weighing in. LeakedÂ extractsÂ of its report, which is due to be unveiled on Thursday, suggest that senior figures in government are to blame for wasting almost 133 million zloty (â‚¬29 million) on the canceled vote.Â
The interior ministry, which oversees the CBA, denied any â€œpolitical motivationsâ€ in raiding BanaÅ›â€™s son just one day after leaks and said that the operation had already been in the works.Â
â€œIncredible coincidence, donâ€™t you think?â€ asked BanaÅ›, who believes his family is being targeted to pressure him into resigning. â€œIn my opinion, CBA has long ceased to be an institution which goes after corrupt officials. Increasingly, it has started taking part in show trials, with mixed results.â€
RadosÅ‚aw Fogiel, a ruling party spokesperson,Â warnedÂ BanaÅ› to â€œweigh his words,â€ while another called his accusations â€œsimply untrue.â€
Opposition politicians have cast the conflict as a power game within the ruling camp. Earlier this month, Cezary Tomczyk, the chairman of the parliamentary club of the Civic Coalition party,Â saidÂ the scrap was â€œa war of gangsâ€ and â€œthe activity of a mafia state.â€Â
More in the pipeline
BanaÅ› has even more pain in store for PiS.
NIK is taking on the Polish National Foundation, a body tasked with promoting Poland abroad that is lavishly financed by state-controled companies; it has beenÂ criticized for squandering fundsÂ on ineffective and politically charged media campaigns.
When the foundation refused to hand over paperwork â€” claiming it is â€œa private entityâ€ â€” NIK last month notified prosecutors of a potential crime of obstructing justice. â€œWe cannot allow such an explanation â€¦ to hinder our audit work,â€ said BanaÅ›.Â
Kwiatkowski said the foundationâ€™s refusal to cooperate is â€œabsolutely unacceptableâ€ and could set a â€œworryingâ€ precedent for the audit officeâ€™s work.
NIK is also looking into the governmentâ€™s handling of the pandemic, including how it spent over 150 billion zÅ‚oty to bolster the economy during lockdowns.
Auditors plan to comb through the governmentâ€™s post-pandemic National Recovery Plan for spending funds from the EUâ€™s recovery fund, which Warsaw has submitted to Brussels.
â€œIt seems that the most interesting topics are still ahead of us,â€ said Kwiatkowski, who noted that NIK is currently reviewing the â‚¬283 million outlay on what was supposed to beÂ Polandâ€™s last coal-fired power plant. Soaring carbon emissions prices and the reluctance of banks to lend for such a scheme forced its cancellation, and itâ€™s now being disassembled.
â€œAlready we can say that the money was being spent in an unreasonable way,â€ said Kwiatkowski. â€œThe audit will now show who is responsible.â€Â
BanaÅ› insists heâ€™s not going away. â€œWhen it comes to our audit work, I havenâ€™t said my last word yet.â€