How we got to the bottom of a mysterious corruption case

Forrás: Vanik Zoltán

This investigation started just as others that I had done previously. I noticed something odd.

Sometime in the fall of 2014 I was checking the procurement database I had got from CEU’s Microdata research group. Procurement records are available on the official government website too but it only allows individual searches but no bulk downloads. That is a problem because it is always much more more exciting to have an organization’s full list of tenders or all the contracts awarded to a certain company. This makes it possible to find anomalies, discrepancies, or, from a journalist’s point of view, potential stories.

Microdata scraped the whole procurement database and made the records available to the public through a web application. What is even better, they were kind enough to give me the raw data so that I can do my own analysis.

This is a huge dataset – including hundreds of thousands of records – and one of my analytical approaches was to break it down to smaller elements. For example, I was interested in the procurements of District 5 of Budapest, a municipality led for by Antal Rogán, now a prominent government politician, from 2006 to 2014.

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After selecting these tenders I did a simple analysis to find out which companies got the most and most valuable contracts from the district. Almost immediately, I noticed that a company called EU-Line won most of the construction projects after 2011, worth billions of forints in total.

I had never heard of EU-Line before. The company did not have a website (which is unusual in the 2010s from a firm that makes billions) but I got especially intrigued after checking EU-Line in the company registry. It turned out that the company was founded in 2011 – not long before its success in the District 5 started – by a then 26-year-old man who had not owned or run any other business before. He has been the sole owner of the company since then.

This made me wonder. How can a company launched and owned by someone apparently without serious business experience get the most valuable contracts from one of the most important municipalities in the country?

The first thing I did was what everybody does nowadays when they want to know something. You google it. However, I could hardly find anything about the company and was not too lucky with the owner either. He is called András Bódis, which is not a very common name, but, much to my regret, a leading journalist of the weekly Heti Válasz also has the same name. Thus almost all of the references I found through Google had something to do with his stories.

As a next step, I contacted some of my sources familiar with the construction industry whether they know anything about EU-Line. They all told me that they knew nothing.

In the meaintime I was trying to find Bódis on social media sites. Even though I figured that he has no profile on any of the big networks I managed to track down people connected to him. (This was the scariest part of the work, realizing that you can learn many private details of a person from social media even if he’s not registered there.) The information gained from the pages of these people also suggested that Bódis was not a high-flying businessman.

Although nowadays much of the reporting can be done on computers, the most exciting part of the work is still when you go to the field. In the company documents, Bódis was registered at an address in Csepel, a district of Budapest. I went there, hoping that I can find out some details about him.

I ended up in a poor neighborhood where I learned quickly that Bódis had moved away but several people shared their memories of him with me. They provided slightly contradictory information on what he does for living but none of it had anything to do with the construction industry. And all of the neighbours were surprised when I told them that Bódis is the sole owner of a construction company that is making billions of forints.

I also launched another line of the investigation. EU-Line is registered at the private address of its CEO but by using a simple phone directory I found out where its actual headquarters are. The company is operating in a building in in downtown Budapest.

When I went to see the address myself it turned out to be a breakthrough in the investigation. Several other companies were registered at the same address and all were linked to János Borzován, a well-known businessman involved in the construction business. Before EU-Line, it was his companies that got most of the contracts from District 5.

Now the main question was whether Bódis and Borzován are connected to each other somehow. I had a pretty easy job to find this out because I could do it simply with Google.

As I was researching Borzován’s business interests I found that he is linked to a hotel named Hotel Central Basilica. When I entered Bódis’s name in combination with the hotel, Google finally gave me a meaningful hit. It turned out that Bódis works as a facility manager in the hotel.

Later I managed to find other links between Borzován and EU-Line (one of them involved companies in Uruguay) and even though he denied having anything to do with it we thought that we had enough information in our hands to write the story.

I had a brief meeting with Bódis in the hotel but he did not answer any of my questions. A few hours after our encounter I received an email from a lawyer who turned out to be his legal representative. The lawyer not only shared with me some of Bódis’s answers but he also sent me warnings about the potential legal consequences of any article that I write about his client. I received similar messages from János Borzován, with whom I managed to get in touch only through email.

Fortunately, we also have good lawyers and I got them involved after I had received the legal threats. We at Direkt36 are always careful and cautious but in situations like this we are even more so. We trust our professional judgement but we take legal threats seriously.

This was what we did in this case too. The editing and factchecking took a little longer than usual but the story was published and, at least so far, it has not been challenged by the lawyers of Bódis or Borzován.

The story did not end here. As I later found it out, Borzován was a suspect in a corruption case. According to the charges, he was asking money for influencing official procedures of the municipality. According to the prosecutors, he had such close relationships with some of the district’s officials that he managed to do this.

In March, I was there when his trial started. And I plan to follow the case because I have the feeling that this story is still not over.

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  • András Pethő

    András is a co-founder, editor and executive director of Direkt36. Previously, he was a senior editor for leading Hungarian news site Origo before it had been transformed into the government’s propaganda outlet. He also worked for the BBC World Service in London and was a reporter at the investigative unit of The Washington Post. He has contributed to several international reporting projects, including The Panama Papers. He twice won the Soma Prize, the prestigious annual award dedicated to investigative journalism in Hungary. He was a World Press Institute fellow in 2008, a Humphrey fellow at the University of Maryland in 2012/13, and a Nieman fellow at Harvard University in 2019/20. András has taught journalism courses at Hungarian universities.