General News: Finmin to sue paper over 'Express Service' claim

Finance Minister George Papaconstantinou intends to sue the newspaper "Proto Thema" for libel over its front-page item under the headline 'express service minister', according to an announcement made by the finance ministry on Sunday.

According to the newspaper, the minister signed off on decisions to write off taxes owed by Yiannis Raptopoulos, the owner of the auto assistance company "Express Service". It also accused the minister of signing off on decisions to lift measures to freeze the company's bank accounts, taken by the tax office to ensure payment of outstanding tax debts.

The ministry announcement said the article was part of an intimidation campaign launched by the newspaper's publisher Themos Anastasiades. It notes that the publisher has in recent weeks sent two solicitors' letters to Papaconstantinou, following the replies given by the minister in Parliament concerning "an unfinished investigation by the financial crimes squad, at the order of a public prosecutor, into Anastasiades' affairs". Papaconstantinou had replied to a question put by the head of the Democratic Alliance party Dora Bakoyannis.

"These solicitors' letters are an unprecedented tactic and an obvious effort to intimidate and obstruct an investigation by the proper services," the ministry announcement said. The article in the newspaper was also in the same vein, it added.

The announcement accused the newspaper of deliberately giving an incomplete picture and either concealing or distorting important facts, and finally providing misleading information in order to commit libel.

The ministry noted that the decisions signed by Papaconstantinou did not concern the 'Express Service' societe anonyme but a private company in which Raptopoulos was sole owner. It added that the company was seeking the return of 27 million euro in VAT on the grounds that this should not have paid because the European Court of Justice considers that auto assistance subscription services is a form of insurance and therefore not liable for VAT.

Pointing out that the VAT would rightfully be returned, following the necessary checks, and offset against the company's tax debts amounting to roughly 6.6 million euros and 7.0 million euros, the tax office had decided to partly lift measures to freeze 50 percent of the company's bank account balance until the amount of the return was decided.

"This decision was taken so as not to put at risk the continued operation of a company that employs 1,300 people and so that it can meet its tax obligations," the announcement said.

It also denied the paper's claim that the company owed some 70 million in taxes or that individuals working in the company had ties with Papaconstantinou. It further criticised the paper for failing to cross-check its information or apply to the ministry for necessary clarifications.

"It is self-evident from the above that the finance minister will pursue a suit against the newspaper for libel," it concluded.

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