George Provopoulos’s 6-year term as the governor of the Bank of Greece (BoG) during one of the most economically tumultuous times in the country’s history may have just ended, but scrutiny over his role in one of the biggest financial scandals in the country is only just beginning: Mr Provopoulos was summoned by the prosecutors to testify as a suspect.
Mr Provopoulos has been called by prosecutors to answer questions regarding his role in the approval of the sale of Proton Bank to Lavrentis Lavrentiadis (one of the country’s top businessmen turned banker, who was charged in 2012 for embezzlement and fraud, and currently awaits trial). The former chief banker is reportedly being treated as a suspect in the case together with other seven members of the BoG's committee that approved the deal. The Financial Prosecutors Athanasiou and Bris are investiating whether the felony of dishonest assistance in a breach of trust has been committed.
Mr Provopoulos recently stepped down as governor of the BoG when his six-year term which began in 2008 came to an end. He was replaced by former Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras
Due to its length that exceeds 5,000 words, we have developed this Special Report in separate parts.
The main story is divided into chapters that are directly accessible from the INDEX drop-down menu on the navigation bar.
On the right sidebar, you can consullt the story's timeline with all the key dates regarding Mr Provopoulos from 2006 to 2014. Each timeline entry has its own tag that refers to one of the story's chapters (e.g. [Proton Bank]).
In most chapters, you can find embedded documents (in most cases in Greek) related to the reporting.
Finally, the story includes two editorials about the broader picture: Mr Provopoulos’s legacy and the Greek media omertà - also accessible as 'chapters' from the index menu.
Disclaimer: The journalists that co-authored this report, Nikolas Leontopoulos and Pavlos Zafiropoulos, have in the years 2012 – 2013 contributed their reporting for Reuters and the New York Times in articles that are quoted in this report.
The Proton Bank Scandal
The former owner of Proton Bank, Lavrentis Lavrentiadis, stands accused of embezzlement, fraud and heading a criminal organisation in one of the countries biggest financial scandals. He was recently released from pretrial detention after posting 500,000 euros bail under the condition that he remain in the country and regularly check in at a police station.
Under Mr Lavrentiadis, Proton Bank allegedly provided about 700 million euros in crony loans to his own companies and associates. Mr Lavrentiadis was also said to have directly embezzled 51 million euros from the bank. Mr Lavrentiadis subsequently repaid the 51 million euros after having his assets frozen and attempted to seek immunity under a Greek law that allows for charges to be waived in the event that criminals return their illicit gains. Mr Lavrentiadis has repeatedly and vigorously denied any wrongdoing and has claimed that he has been unfairly singled out.
However his legal appeals were rejected and Mr Lavrentiadis will stand trial for the criminal charges.
Shockingly the hundreds of millions of alleged loans to Mr Lavrentiadis’s own companies (40% of the total lending of the bank according to a BoG report) took place when the crisis was already causing chaos in the banking and financial sector. Proton Bank eventually had to be bailed out by the Greek government
in October 2011 to the tune of 1.3 billion euros.
The Prosecutor’s Report and George Provopoulos’s role
If the Proton Bank scandal was shocking to some, one might argue that it shouldn’t have come as such a surprise to Mr Provopoulos. That is because when the relevant committee of the BoG under Mr Provopoulos approved the purchase of Proton Bank by Mr Lavrentiadis from Piraeus Bank in early 2010, it was despite the numerous serious red flags that had been raised by the BoG’s own auditors about Mr Lavrentiadis’s finances and business dealings. Red flags that some have argued (including the prosecutors) render the decision by Mr Provopoulos and Bank of Greece’s committee to allow the purchase to go ahead, possibly a criminal one giving the BoG’s role in overseeing the Greek banking system - and as such should be further investigated.
Mr Lavrentiadis gained control of the bank by purchasing 31% of its shares from Piraeus bank for 71 million euros. Indeed the money had actually been transferred on the 30th of December 2009 without the prior approval of the Bank of Greece only a day after Piraeus Bank and Mr Lavrentiadis had declared Mr Lavrentiadis’s intention to buy the bank. As the BoG was considering whether to issue the required approval of the deal, the BoG’s own auditors raised numerous concerns.
These are outlined in a report issued by George Kaloudis, a senior Greek prosecutor, in May of 2013. Specifically according to the findings of the BoG’s auditors cited in the report:
1. In an evaluation of the sources of Mr Lavrentiadis money it was determined that he purchased the bank using borrowed money channeled through various companies and accounts, despite having stated that the money came from the sale of two of his companies and that as an individual he had no debts to banks.
2. Furthermore the auditors write that, “Mr Lavrentiadis’s accounts in the banks are connected directly or indirectly with accounts of the companies Blue Island Properties, Dall, WGR Worldwide, WGR Global, WGR Universal, ELFE, Alapis and VFL. Through the accounts of the above entities there is movement of large sums, without obvious purposes, with the aim of rendering it difficult to match the real outflows with the inflows... The movement of the amounts of the loans that were deposited for the [share purchases] took place through accounts through which there was no reason for them to pass, therefore it is believed that it took place to conceal their final destination.”
3. Mr Lavrentiadis was deemed not to have adequate cash reserves to support the future needs of the bank as was required, with his companies sitting on debts worth 2.2 billion euros. Furthermore his business plan for the bank was deemed cursory and difficult to achieve given the financial crisis, posing a risk for the future of the bank.
4. Mr Lavrentiadis had provided a written declaration to the BoG that he had no direct or indirect interests in media outlets. However this assertion had ‘no basis in reality’ given that one of his companies had made multiple investments in a wide range of media companies. [Note that at the peak of his fortunes, Mr Lavrentiadis had become one of the biggest players in the greek media landscape, owing significant stakes in TV stations, radio stations, newspapers, magazines. He was thus treated favourably by the majority of the press who proved rather reluctant to report on him and, in particular, to publish any negative news stories. The BoG auditors found that part of Proton’s loan book was used to generously finance news outlets, owned or influenced by Mr Lavrentiadis.]
5. Mr Lavrentiadis had declared that he would apply for a license for his UK based investment fund ‘Lamda Partners’ yet that was untrue given that the specific fund had been operating without a license from the FSA, the competent regulatory body, since 2008. The FSA informed the BoG auditors that it had never received any license application from Mr Lavrentiadis.
In short Mr Lavrentiadis appears to have provided numerous untrue assurances to the Bank of Greece in order for them to approve his purchase of Proton Bank. The auditors had discovered these and that fact, together with the high level of debt of Mr Lavrentiadis’s companies (2.2 billion!) and his excessively optimistic plan for the bank led the auditors to conclude that, were the sale to be approved, it would “lead to an increased risk to the reputation of the Bank”. Or, in other words, that the bank might fail.
In should also be noted that a similar move by Mr Lavrentiadis to purchase a bank in Cyprus around the same period had been rejected by the head of the central bank there due to the businessman’s questionable finances.
Yet despite all of the above, on the 30th of March 2010 the relevant committee of Bank of Greece approved the purchase of 31.31% of the shares of Proton Bank by Lavrentis Lavrentiadis. Among the signatories to the decision was George Provopoulos.
There is no evidence to suggest that Mr Provopoulos profited personally from the Proton deal. However it remains to be seen whether Piraeus Bank (where Mr Provopoulos was formerly a vice president) benefited: Critics argue it may have unloaded the shaky Proton Bank to shore up its bottom line.
Furthermore as noted by the Prosecutor, Mr Lavrentiadis appears to have paid an unexplained premium to Piraeus Bank, paying 32 million euros over the share price for the 31% stake in the bank.
It is also worth noting Mr Lavrentiadis has also since alleged in a supplementary deposition to magistrates that Michalis Sallas
, then Chairman and CEO of the Bank of Piraeus, and Mr Provopoulos’s former boss, personally intervened in order to ensure that the sale of the bank was approved by the central bank. As written in an October 2013 New York Times article
Left: Michalis Sallas, Piraeus Bank - right: Lavrentis Lavrentiadis, Proton Bank
“The Proton deal was announced on Dec. 29, 2009. The next day, Mr. Lavrentiadis wired 71 million euros to Piraeus, according to the prosecutor’s report — even though the sale had not been formally approved by the central bank’s regulatory division.
As weeks passed without a nod from regulators, Mr. Lavrentiadis became worried that he would never gain control of the bank. Mr. Lavrentiadis told prosecutors that he met with Mr. Sallas, the Piraeus chairman, in late March and said that he had decided to pull out of the deal.
'Don’t do that,' Mr. Sallas replied, according to Mr. Lavrentiadis’s account. “Let me call my good friend George Provopoulos, and he will do what is needed to get this deal cleared.'
A few days later, the central bank approved the sale."
Piraeus Bank has denied that allegation outright claiming that it amounted to a false and desperate defense on the part of Lavrentiadis.
The ties to Piraeus Bank: Supervising his former employer
Questions remain about Mr Provopoulos’s relationship with Piraeus Bank (his former employer before he took over as central banker) and with its chairman Michael Sallas: from the eyebrow raising 3.4 million euro severance payment he received from the bank to numerous regulatory decisions taken by the BoG under his governorship that, according to critics, appear to have favoured Piraeus bank.
Again from the New York Times: “Provopoulos’s critics argue that the playbook used in the Proton deal — described as a series of back-room maneuverings that rewarded Michalis G. Sallas, the domineering chairman of Piraeus Bank — was deployed repeatedly, most recently when Piraeus bought the Greek operations of three Cypriot banks last March at a knockdown price of 524 million euros, and a few months later booked a profit of 3.5 billion euros on the transaction.”
Similarly Mr Provopoulos came under criticism in 2012 over a decision
to put the non-performing loans of the struggling state run Agricultural Bank (ATEbank) into a separate ‘bad bank’ and hand the rest to Piraeus Bank. Opposition MPs argued that the private lender has been gifted the deposits and assets of the state bank. Provopoulos defended the deal in parliament claiming “this was the only viable option”. Otherwise, "[t]he systemic stability that we have carefully safeguard would have been shaken”.
A 3.4 million payoff from his former employer
Furthermore, a report by Reuters
in October 2012 revealed that Mr Provopoulos had enjoyed special treatment
when he stepped down from Piraeus Bank to take over as governor of the Greek central bank. As Reuters pointed out, “the governor of the Bank of Greece was given a severance payment of 3.4 million euros when he left his former employer, a major bank that he now regulates”.
The severance package granted to Mr Provopoulos amounted to more than two million euros per year of service, a notable sum when compared to what other directors of the same rank received when they departed from the same bank. As a measure of comparison, another vice-chairman was given an exit payment amounting to less than 100,000 euros per year of service.
At the time, as documents submitted to the Greek Parliament by the Bank of Greece and Piraeus Bank stated (see documents in greek), Mr Provopoulos had a loan with his employer (Piraeus Bank) of 5 million euros, taken out to buy Piraeus shares and stock options. Three months after taking over as central banker, Mr Provopoulos sold his Piraeus Bank shares portfolio to avoid any conflict of interest. The sale left him with an outstanding debt of 2.1 million to his former bank which he covered with a personal cheque. As the Reuters report noted, “the statement to parliament made no reference to the fact that Provopoulos had been granted a severance payment of 3.4 million euros by Piraeus”.
The 'peculiar' timing of the call for Mr Provopoulos to appear before prosecutors
Perhaps the most perplexing aspect of the recent move by prosecutors to treat Mr Provopoulos and other members of the BoG’s committee as suspects in the Proton case is why it took so long. The prosecutor’s report on which the latest move appears to have been based was issued over a year ago in May 2013 and has been in the public domain at least since summer 2013.
In the past Mr Provopoulos’s supporters have stated that the allegations of wrongdoing against him were politically motivated, driven by politicians who wished to have greater control over the nation's banking sector.
However in practice the exact opposite appears to apply, with Mr Provopoulos being called to appear before prosecutors only after having stepped down as the BoG governor.
In other words it appears that until now his position as the country’s most powerful banker shielded him from investigation with the courts less willing to prosecute a sitting governor of the Bank of Greece than a former one.
Marfin / Laiki Bank: A 'tolerant' central bank in Greece; the fall of a bank in Cyprus
In the autumn of 2008, the greek political scene was shaken by the Vatopedi scandal
. The case (which years later became iconic of the Greek crisis, in part because of a Michael Lewis feature for Vanity Fair
) concerned a controversial land swap between a greek-orthodox monastery in the Mount Athos peninsula and the greek government that allegedly involved corruption on both sides of the table. Interestingly, just beneath the surface of this scandal, another one lurked, this time implicating banks instead of monks: Marfin Popular Bank
, a Cypriot bank under Greek control, had loaned more than 150 million euros to the monastery. Digging deeper into the bank’s portfolio, a parliamentary committee found out that the bank had been involved in dubious lending practices: allegedly loans to the tune of 1.8 billion euros were issued to finance entities related to the bank
, arousing suspicions for serious conflicts of interest.
Mr Provopoulos was asked by the Parliament’s committee to explain why the central bank had not moved earlier to sanction the lending practices of Marfin Bank. He insisted that the regulator had acted promptly and that the bank (Marfin) had not breached banking practices rules – with the exception of minor violations that were sanctioned by the regulator.
What Mr Provopoulos failed to mention to the committee was that an audit report, jointly drafted by his own Bank of Greece and by the central bank of Cyprus, had addressed very serious allegations regarding the functioning of Marfin Bank and its loan policies.
The 50-page “Report of Audit in Group of Marfin Egnatia Bank SA”, (MEB was a subsidiary of Marfin Popular Bank) drafted in May 2009, did not mince words. In the first paragraph, under “Basic Assumptions”, the auditors said that the bank “undertakes risks whose level and nature are a cause for concern for the supervising authorities, regarding its correct and adequate management”.
Among other things, the auditors found “Loans, mainly to MIG group [underlined in the report], granted in several cases with a preferential treatment and without respecting the procedures of prudent banking practices (low fees, long period of payback), leading to the bank’s exposure to increased risks”. And “exceedances of the authorized credit policy and procedures as well as violations of PDTE 2577/9.3.06” (PDTE stands for Act of the Governor of the Bank of Greece).
In the October 2010 parliamentary report, the committee’s members stated they were “particularly troubled” by the “tolerant” role of the Bank of Greece.
The Chairman of the committee, MP Tsironis, went further and sent a letter to Greece’s top Supreme Court judge, asking for an investigation. His letter was forwarded by the Supreme Court to the Bank of Greece.
On November 9 2010, Mr Provopoulos said in his reply he was “surprised” by Tsironis’s letter which showed “insufficient understanding of the data which fatally leads to wrong conclusions”.
One crucial question concerned the relationship between Marfin Bank and MIG, Greece’s biggest investment group at the time. According to Bank of Greece data, Marfin Bank had lent 700 million euros to finance the purchase of MIG shares. The chairman of the parliament committee, MP Tsironis, had argued that Marfin and MIG were effectively inseparable, not least because they shared many executives and shareholders. He wrote in his letter to the Supreme Court: "The lending nexus between Marfin and MIG and the other related companies creates a huge co-dependence and risk concentration."
Provopoulos refuted this argument: “Furthermore, there is no evidence that MIG exercises a dominating influence on the two banks (Marfin Popular Bank and Marfin Egnatia Bank) nor that those are subject to the same management".
But the central banker’s claim was contradicted by the findings of his own bank’s audit that said in 2009: “The relationship between MPB [Marfing Popular Bank] group and MIG group creates the impression that the close ties between the two groups played a significant role in the approval of those loans”.
Concluding his response, Provopoulos qualified Tsironis’s arguments as “unfounded
” and “dangerous
” if they were to be published.
They were not published - and neither did the damning (for Marfin Bank) internal BoG report which remained secret until it surfaced for the first time in a Reuters story (Special Report: How a Greek bank infected Cyprus
) three years after its drafting, in June 2012. Following the Cyprus bail-in crisis in 2013, more details of the report were published by Eleftherotypia newspaper
and HotDoc Magazine
. But the report audit was mostly ignored by the Bank of Greece top management.
In March 2013, the Cyprus banking system collapsed. Marfin Popular Bank (by then named Laiki) was winded down while the Bank of Cyprus (the island’s largest commercial bank) was recapitalized at the expense of the depositors. Laiki’s thousands of savers saw their deposits wiped out. While conventional wisdom attributed the collapse to the bank’s exposure to Greek sovereign bonds, some analysts thought otherwise. According to a BBC Radio report
regarding Laiki, “billions handed out in bad loans created a financial time-bomb
that has destroyed a nation's hopes”.
The question whether a prompt intervention by the regulators in Greece (since the risks were known to them by 2009) could have changed the fate of the bank, and also averted its crash in 2013, still remains open.
The “T+10” controversy: Did the BoG encourage speculation on Greek bonds?
Source: 'Eleftheros Typos' newspaper
In May 2010, the Bank of Greece was accused, in the press and in parliament, of encouraging naked short selling
following a change in the Bank’s regulations regarding the settlement of bond trades. Following a front page investigative report by the Greek newspaper Eleftheros Typos, Vaso Papandreou
, an MP with the governing PASOK party (who is unrelated to the former PM George Papandreou) and a former European commissioner, filed a question in parliament alleging that the Bank of Greece had deliberately made it easier for speculators to short Greek bonds by extending the settlement period and abolishing the penalties for failed bond trades
on its electronic bond trading platform.
According to a report by newspaper ‘Eleftheros Typos’, the decision to change the rules was taken following a request by the Hellenic Banks Association (a lobby group representing the Greek banks) on October 5 2009, one day after the Greek general elections and just weeks before the Greek debt crisis explodes.
The changes of rules were first implemented on October 22 2009 without an Act of the Bank of Greece [PDTE] as the law stipulates. Almost four months later, on February 10 2010, a relevant PDTE was issued, signed by the vice-governor of the BoG Mr Papadakis but not by Mr Provopoulos. ‘Eleftheros Typos’ provides also a document issued by ‘Euroclear', the european settlement platform, referring to the change of rules (see embedded document).
Following the outcry, all changes in the system will be annulled on April 7 2010 and the initial settlement period is reinstated. Critics in the Greek press have argued that the Greek bonds spreads explosion might be partially attributed to this window of opportunity offered by the BoG to the speculators.
Mr Provopoulos claimed
that “the Bank of Greece has never introduced any changes to the regime of sanctions.
The 10-day maximum period chosen by the bank for automatic recycling is relatively short in comparison with standard practice” and concluded “The T+3 convention has remained in place; the penalties for failed bond trades have not been altered since the inception of Bogs; the introduction of automatic recycling for a maximum of 10 days is relatively short; and international experience provides no evidence of any meaningful relationship between aggressive trading practices and the recycling procedure.”
The legacy of Mr Provopoulos
Giorgos Stournaras, former Minister of Economics and now Governor of BoG with Giorgos Provopoulos in the Greek Parliament
“Few [in the world] hold as much power within their own country as Georgios A. Provopoulos
” said a New York Times report
published when he was still the central banker. His judicial travails set aside (and it’s too early to say whether he will eventually be brought to a court), Mr Provopoulos is leaving the Bank of Greece with the aura of the man who “played a crucial role in keeping Greece out of bankruptcy and in the euro zone
” (from the same article). Mr Provopoulos in an interview given just before he stepped down from the central bank, confessed: "I spent many sleepless nights
not knowing in what currency I would wake up to."
In an op-ed
piece published in the Wall Street Journal
, a few weeks before he stepped down as central banker, Mr Provopoulos set the record of his own successes – and some of them are undisputed: “The sirens of doom have been silenced”
. Not only “all deposits in Greece were fully protected
” but “deposits have returned to the banking system” along with “renewed international confidence
in the banking system”. “Today, the banking sector comprises four well-capitalized, viable pillar banks and a few smaller ones”.
Other commentators have different views. Economist Yanis Varoufakis thinks
it was “precisely” this recapitalization process that served as “the main mechanism for the creation of Greece’s New Cleptocracy.
While both the private and the public sectors were collapsing, the bankers managed to extract a sweet deal from the governing politicians”[…] “The Central Bank of Greece shielded the bankers’ sinful deeds from criticism, even from legal action”. Speaking of Mr Provopoulos in person, Varoufakis says: “Interestingly, the Central Bank of Greece’s governor […] was, until he became governor, an employee of the banker that benefitted the most from all of the above”
In the same vain, Landon Thomas, the NYT business reporter, compared Provopoulos to Henry M. Paulson Jr., the former Goldman Sachs chief who as US Treasury secretary bailed-out on taxpayers’ money some of the biggest American banks in the post-2008 years. “In Greece”, noted Thomas Jr in the article cited above, “Mr. Provopoulos fast-tracked a slate of deals that transformed Piraeus Bank, where he had been a vice chairman before joining the central bank, into the nation’s most powerful bank”.
As for the public? They might remember him for this paragraph (see embedded document) inside the Bank of Greece’s Interim Monetary Policy for 2010 :
at page 147, Mr Provopoulos poses as a strong advocate of “suspending activities” for the Open Care Centres of the Elderly
(a welfare institution for the pensioners), “including travels abroad or free holidays, for a period of five years, until financial stability is restored”.
At the height of the crisis, with billions of euros being channeled to the banks at a huge social cost, Mr Provopoulos was still asking for more cuts, this time targeting the summer vacations of the elderly.
Now, at the age of 64, Mr Provopoulos is officially at retirement age, though probably not in need of a free summer voucher.