External Affairs

Trial by Numbers, or Trial by the Financial Times?

Riot police push protesters during clashes outside the Labor Ministry in Athens in this January 30, 2013 file picture. Credit: John Kolesidis, Reuters

Riot police push protesters during clashes outside the Labor Ministry in Athens in this January 30, 2013 file picture. Credit: John Kolesidis/Reuters

Based upon a re-examination of the case by Greece’s highest court, former statistics chief Andreas Georgiou will again face criminal charges in relation to changing the estimates of Greece’s deficit made by his staff:  it is apparently alleged that Georgiou, a long-time IMF technocrat who was appointed to lead Greece’s statistical authority in 2010, altered these numbers in order to present Greece as having a deficit so large that it would have to seek emergency assistance from international actors, and have its economic and other policies come under the tutelage of people like Georgiou’s former colleagues at the IMF.

There is no doubt that the size of the deficit as reported by Georgiou had a significant impact on how Greece’s situation was viewed outside the country, including by its creditors; in this case, the prosecution argues that this impact undermined the national interest.

In a remarkable public relations victory, Georgiou and his friends have convinced, it seems, the international media that the criminal charges are merely a political witch hunt; Georgiou did his duty in reporting honestly the state of affairs in Greece, resisting the politicised statistical practices that had been all to common in Greece until he took the helm.   Now, it is suggested, Greece’s political elite is engaged in a vendetta. In a recent oped the Financial Times decried the charges against Georgiou, stating: “The campaign against [him] looks like a vindictive attempt to shift the blame for Greece’s financial collapse from a discredited political class that still hopes to make a comeback.” Because EU officials took the side of Georgiou’s reworking of the numbers (as if they didn’t have their own interests at stake!) and because he was a seasoned IMF official (consider how numbers were massaged or ignored inside the Fund in relation to Greece, as recently documented by the IMF’s own internal watchdog, he has to be right, according to the underlying logic of the FT.

I myself don’t presume to know whether Georgiou is guilty of the charges against him.  Before taking its stance that this is a political trial, it isn’t even clear to me that the FT examined such crucial documents as the original complaint, the argument before Greece’s Supreme Court, or the court’s judgment sending the case back to the appeals council.  Neither in the oped in question nor in other recent coverage, does the FT (or other international media) actually recite the exact provisions of the law under which Georgiou is charged.  This is the extent of mere presumption that Greece is manufacturing a political show trial.

While the FT has given Georgiou ample space to state his side of the matter, it seems to have forgotten the econometrician whistleblower who first brought the accusations against him.

To be sure, Zoe Georganta, a professor at the University of Macedonia who was on Georgiou’s staff at the time, doesn’t have quite the neoliberal cosmopolitan pedigree of Georgiou, with his University of Michigan PhD and all those years at the Fund.  But she does have a doctorate from Leeds in econometrics, and has been a visiting scholar at Cambridge University’s department of economics as well as at Harvard and the NBER in the US-twice.

One would think that if the FT was giving Georgiou a chance to argue for his innocence, they might have asked Georganta, his original accuser, her view of the turn that the case has now taken. In 2011, the FT was indeed more careful; the paper interviewed and briefly quoted Georganta, who insisted on the veracity of her claims against Georgiou.  Granted, Georganta may now be a witness in the proceeding, and unavailable to the media; but the lack of all mention of her in the FT‘s oped gives the unjustified impression that the charges against  Georgiou were merely trumped up political offences. It should be added that Georganta is no puppet or apologist of Greek politicians: she ends a fascinating 2011 scholarly article “Greek Fiscal and Financial Data: More Than Meets the Eye” by accusing Greece’s governments of having “promoted clientism to an extreme form.”

Even if the current charges against Georgiou originate (at least to some extent) from the allegations of a competent, independent-minded former employee and academic economist, the real question that the FT and others should be asking is whether highly selective criminal trials like this are the best way of handling accountability for the Greek crisis. Before she broke with Syriza, the former speaker of the Greek parliament Zoe Konstantopoulo – a brilliant if difficult political personality –  had initiated a truth commission into Greek debt, which was suspended after a preliminary report that suggested broad avenues of inquiry as to whether some or all of the debt was “odious” within the international law conception of that term.  Accountability is important; but it needs to be expanded way beyond the specific question of odiousness to many features of the handling of the crisis, and indeed  the events that originated it, going back to how Greece’s entry into the Eurozone was handled (See Joseph Stiglitz’s new book The Euro); those who must be made to answer – without prejudice to how the responsibility is ultimately allocated – should include not only domestic actors in Greece, but former and in some cases current EU and IMF officials, not to mention Goldman Sachs.