A Thessaloniki court on Wednesday handed life sentences to the city’s former mayor, Vassilis Papageorgopoulos, and two former municipal officials, after finding them guilty of embezzling nearly 18 million euros from municipal coffers.
In a rare conviction that sent shock waves through the political and media establishments, a court in Thessaloniki found the 65-year-old former mayor guilty of being a direct accomplice in a scam operated by Michalis Lemousias and Panagiotis Saxonis, who had worked as general secretary and treasurer at the municipality during Papageorgopoulos’s two stints as mayor between January 1999 and December 2010. The two former aides were also handed life terms for embezzlement, with Saxonis receiving an extra nine years after admitting that the cash transactions took place in his office. The three, who are expected to appeal the sentences, were handcuffed and transferred to Diavata Prison on Wednesday afternoon.
Another two ex-treasury officials were given jail terms of 15 and 10 years respectively while an additional 13 former municipal staff were exonerated.
Reacting to the verdict earlier in the day, Papageorgopoulos remarked, “I am sure that some people will die with remorse.” “In any case, that won’t be us,” presiding judge Giorgos Apostolakis responded.
The trial began last September after a state financial inspector found an estimated gap of 52 million euros in the municipality’s coffers. “It was a mess,” Anastasia Tsempera told the court. “All the procedures were totally nontransparent,” she said, adding that Saxonis had clearly been the “executive organ” in the scam.
The current mayor of Thessaloniki, Yiannis Boutaris, had also testified for the prosecution, referring to an “omerta” and a “racket” in City Hall.
Papageorgopoulos, for his part, issued a statement on Wednesday saying the ruling was “of a political nature, aimed exclusively at satisfying a public that is demanding political blood.” The former mayor added in his statement that he was sure “no Greek believes that Vassilis Papageorgopoulos betrayed them” and said he would await the decision of the secondary court, referring to his appeal.
Papageorgopoulos, dubbed the “flying doctor” due to his European record in the 100 meters and his medical studies, was a key member of conservative New Democracy which leads the coalition government and served as a junior minister in the 1980s. His conviction for embezzlement on Wednesday sparked another fierce exchange between ND and the main leftist opposition SYRIZA party, with the latter slamming Prime Minister Antonis Samaras for making statements in September 2011 describing Papageorgopoulos as “honorable.” ND described as “outrageous and provocative” SYRIZA’s use of a statement by Samaras that was made before the trial against the former Thessaloniki mayor began.