John FitzGerald: Public servant emerges as unlikely Greek hero
Statistics office director got suspended sentence for correcting Greece’s cooked books
Andreas Georgiou, president of the Hellenic Statistical Authority, remains under fire in Greece for restating the country’s indebtedness. Photograph: Roy Gutman/MCT via Getty Images
Homer’s Greek heroes had different qualities – mercurial Achilles was renowned for his bravery in battle, whereas the more patient Odysseus overcame his trials through his quick wits.
Andreas Georgiou is a modern-day Greek hero, a public servant who has told the truth, even at the risk of imprisonment. When, during the economic crisis, he took over the job of director of the Greek statistical office, he knew this task brought problems. However, he probably did not expect to have to be a hero, being prosecuted for telling the truth and doing his job.
In the years before the economic crisis, the Greek central statistics office (CSO) had supped with the “lotus eaters”, publishing seriously dishonest figures for the Greek economy. They hid from Greek citizens the fact that the public finances were rapidly deteriorating and that the growth in the economy relied on ever-rising borrowing. Misleading data meant a very ill-prepared Greece joined the euro zone, although the true figures could have disqualified them from membership.
However, once the statistical failures were discovered and publicised, the Greek CSO recruited Georgiou to move from the safe haven of the International Monetary Fund in order to introduce a new more rigorous approach to Greek statistics. In doing his work and revealing the true state of the Greek public finances he was supported by the European statistical office (Eurostat).
Georgiou’s alleged crime was that he oversaw a revision to the estimate of the Greek government deficit for 2009 that added 1.8 percentage points of GDP to the already very large deficit. This upward revision of the 2009 deficit to 15.4 per cent of GDP occurred at a time when Greece was in crisis and unable to borrow from financial markets.
The higher borrowing figure showed that Greece had even bigger problems than previously understood by Greek citizens, the European Commission or the IMF. Instead of recognising the political failures of the past and the urgent need to bring the public finances under control, the Greek authorities prosecuted the director of the Greek CSO for “falsifying” the deficit figures, causing Greece “extraordinary damage”. Thus the person who corrected the cooked books became the person in the firing line.
A recent European Parliament report remarked that the prosecution of Georgiou has continued for years “even though investigating judges, prosecutors and the council of the appeals court have on six separate occasions recommended, or decided, that the charges be dropped”. Nevertheless, last August Georgiou, along with two other officials, was sentenced to two years in prison, suspended for three years. This judgment ignored the fact that under EU law the Greek CSO was obliged to publish the correct figures.
Shooting the messenger
The oversight board for Eurostat has also commented on the paradox that Georgiou and his colleagues have been sentenced to jail for telling the truth, while no legal action has been taken by the Greek government to prosecute those responsible for the very serious misreporting of Greek deficit data, detected in 2004 and 2007. It is a case of shooting the messenger bringing bad news, rather than prosecuting the true culprits who deceived the Greek people.
Even in Ireland, life can sometimes be difficult for public servants when they bring bad news to Ministers. Sometimes politicians value public servants doing this part of their job – it is better to hear the bad news first from your staff rather than to pretend that all is well when it is patently not. However, certain politicians – US president Donald Trump for one – seem particularly allergic to unfavourable news, preferring what puts them in a good light, even if it is “fake news”.
One of the Republic’s unsung strengths has been the competence and complete independence of the Central Statistics Office since its formal establishment in 1949. This independence is enshrined in legislation, and is respected by politicians on all sides.
Throughout the economic crisis, our CSO published the correct figures for the deficit. Unlike their Greek colleagues, the CSO knew that the Department of Finance was also committed to publishing correct numbers, however unpalatable. It was reassuring that, at a time of great uncertainty, our public accounts data were reliable and honest, if awful.