How did we investigate the businesses of the Orbán family? And what did it have to do with running and cycling?

Last May, we published our first story on how the companies of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s family were secretly benefiting from projects funded by the government (often paid from the European Union’s budget). The story was the result of a complex months-long investigation. Here is the five most interesting episodes of our reporting.

Investigation on the run

Andras Petho: My favorite place to run in Budapest is the Margaret Island. I’ve been there countless times but my run on 4 August 2016 was a special one. Not because I was particularly fast but because I saw something interesting that day.

A sewage construction was taking place on the island and big concrete items were piled up on different spots. As I was running by one of these piles I noticed that there were small metal plates on the items. I stopped to check what was written on the plates and found that they showed the items were produced by a company called Dolomit Kft., based in Gánt, a town about an hour drive from Budapest. The name was familiar, because the company belonged to Győző Orbán, the father of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban.

I had heard before that the companies of Orbán’s family members were participating in state constructions. We even tried to find evidence of it, but we quickly hit a huge obstacle, namely that it was extremely difficult to get official records about their involvement. The Orbán companies participated in the projects as suppliers not as main contractors and the public databases do not contain information about suppliers.

This had discouraged us from deeper reporting but what I saw on Margaret Island gave us new momentum. This was a direct confirmation that the rumors from the construction industry were not baseless. And also gave us the idea to visit other construction sites and try to find items that may be coming from the Orbán companies.

Tailing trucks

Andras Petho: This was clearly a complex case, so we launched the investigation on several tracks. We collected public records and developed sources in the construction industry who may have had information about the Orbán companies’ participation in public projects. Plus, I became a frequent visitor at the headquarters of the family’s businesses, which is a mining site close to Gánt, a small village about an hour drive from Budapest.

At first, I went there just to see how the site looks like. It became clear soon enough that there is quite a lot of traffic at the mine. In only a couple of hours I saw several trucks coming and going. They were loaded with stones and other products and then left the site.

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This gave me an idea. What if I follow these trucks? If I’m lucky I’ll be able to figure out who the clients of the Orbán companies are.

It sounded simple, but I had to realize pretty quickly that following someone or something by car is not an easy thing to do. First of all, it’s difficult to find the right distance. If you stay behind too far, you can easily lose your target at traffic lights if they turn to red before you could cross. If you are getting too close to the truck then it can blow your cover, as the driver of the slow-moving truck will wonder why you don’t pass his vehicle.

I had my fair share of failures during these adventures. Once I lost a truck after following it for more than an hour. Another time I managed to tail a truck till it reached its destination, but it turned out to be irrelevant for our story. But this method produced some success as well. A truck that I tailed led me to the asphalt mixing site of a construction company working on big public projects, which became an important part of our story.

Mining documents in strange places

Finding official documents about the companies’ involvement was a crucial part of the investigation from the outset. What made this difficult was that we did not really know what kind of documents we had to look for. Nobody could tell us in what files we can find the papers with the information about the Orbán companies. So, we tried to gain access to the complete archives of certain public projects even though we knew that these archives can be huge, often having documents of tens of thousands of pages. Both of our reporters had interesting experiences with this part of the investigation.

András Pethő: It was a breakthrough in our investigation when I managed to get an official document showing that a company of the Orbán family was a supplier in a major sewage construction in Érd, a town near Budapest. I was especially happy because getting the documents was quite difficult.

Although the company in charge of the sewage project was open to giving me access there were some external obstacles. The company’s manager warned me that the archive is huge and only some parts of it had been digitalized. He added that the bulk of the papers are kept in a metal container at the local sewage water facility. And this turned out to be a problem.

I approached them last winter when we were going through some extraordinarily cold period. The manager told me that according to the regulations he has to assign one of his colleagues to be with me while I’m checking the documents. And he didn’t want any of his employees to suffer in the freezing cold. So, he asked me to get back to him when the weather improves, and the temperature rises above zero.

I kept checking the forecast and when I saw that it was going to be warmer I called him again and got an appointment. It was still very cold in that container and my fingers almost got frozen but having found the first document proving the Orbán company’s involvement in the construction made me so enthusiastic that I did not really care about all these inconveniences.

Blanka Zöldi: Similarly to the sewerage system construction in Érd, it was not easy to look into other project documents either. For example, the sewerage works in the villages of the Tapiomente region terminated in May 2016 and the project company was dissolved. Thus, nearly a year later it was already difficult to find out who handles the documents.

In the end, we turned to the local government of Nagykáta. We had a two-week-long e-mail correspondence with the mayor who finally invited us for a personal meeting. Judging from our previous e-mails, it seemed that the meeting’s aim was to show us documents. However, after a 1.5-hour-long drive, when we got to the local government with András, we were surprised to be led into a completely empty office. It turned out that we had not been called to Nagykáta to see documents, but only to discuss in person with the former technical leader of the project what exact type of files of the huge project documentation we wanted to look into. So, after the first unsuccessful visit, we had to wait another two weeks to actually see the documents. Right next to the football field of Nagykáta, there was an old storage place full of boxes of documents. I could hardly hide my happiness from the mayor – who was supervising me while I was going through the documents – when already in the third box I found some delivery notes with the name of one of the Orbán companies on it.

Unusual bike tours in the summer

Blanka Zöldi: After the publication of our first article on the Orbán family’s business, we received several tips from our readers and other sources about other construction projects that the Orbán companies participated in. Two of these were being carried out during the summer: one was the re-cultivation project at a Power Station near Oroszlány, while the other was a big railway reconstruction at Lake Balaton.

Since that state-owned company the supervised the projects did not allow us to look into the project documents, I tried to obtain evidence of the Orbán family’s involvement at the site of the constructions. I went to the sites by bike, because it was easier to approach the construction workers and talk to them, and also because I don’t have a driving licence.

In the end, biking proved to be useful: on my way to the power plant, for example, one of the first trucks that passed by me on the road had the logo of the cargo company of the Orbán family. After I arrived to the entrance of the power stations, I spent around an hour behind a tree, from where I was able to make videos of then more trucks of the same company arriving to the construction site.

The Balaton railway project was more difficult: on two occasions, I biked 80 kilometres along the rails under reconstruction, but I did not see any truck at the site. On my way, however, several construction workers greeted me loudly. They were quite surprised when, as a response, I biked closer to them to ask: “do you know from which mine these crushed stones are delivered?” As I told everyone I was a journalist, there were only a few workers who actually answered my questions. Still, at three different places I was told that the construction materials came from Gant, from a mine owned by the prime minister’s father. To my great surprise, when I unexpectedly stepped into the official project office, two office employees also confirmed the information I had received from the construction workers. After I left the office, I celebrated with lángos – a deep fried Hungarian dough, commonly sold at the Lake Balaton – that I managed to gather some valuable information about the Orbán family’s businesses.

In Brussels with Orbán

Blanka Zöldi: Before publishing, we always send detailed questions to everyone mentioned in our articles. However, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his father have never ever responded our e-mailed questions about their family businesses. We wanted to confront PM with the fact that although earlier he had been opposed to his father’s involvement in state projects, his family now benefits from EU-funded constructions. At events organised in Hungary, most of the times the PM quickly shrugs off uncomfortable questions, so we needed to look for a better venue for the confrontation.

A Brussels-based journalist told me that twice a year, after the meeting of the European Council, Viktor Orbán tends to hold a longer press conference, where he normally answers in details all the questions of foreign and Hungarian journalists. So I quickly booked a low-cost ticket to travel to the press conference, held in June.

During the two days of the Council’s meeting, I spent most of my time in European Parliament’s building, as the exact time of the PM’s press conference was not published in advance. Finally, the press conference was scheduled for the second day of the meeting, at 2 pm. Since the European Commission Representation in Hungary has invited many Hungarian journalists to report on the event, the room where the press conference was going to be held quickly filled up with colleagues.

This made me uneasy: the press conference started with over an hour of delay, and the PM’s press person has warned journalist at the very beginning of the press conference that Orbán can only stay until 4 pm, and probably will not have time for everyone’s question. At the U-shaped table, I tried to sit as close to Orbán as possible, but the PM started to take questions from the other end of the table – where the correspondent of MTI, the state’s news agency was sitting.

Luckily, I had time to ask my question in the last ten minutes. This was the first time in my life that I asked the prime minister in person, so I was a bit nervous. I has imagined many times before how the conversation would go, but I did not anticipate one thing: the tricky microphone on my desk. When I wanted to ask a question, I had to press a button on my microphone, and when Orbán replied, and he also pressed his button on his own mic. The PM began a confusing explanation about his family’s business instead of directly answering my question. I wanted repeat my questions, so while the PM was explaining, I pressed my button – I only realised later, after several similar moves, that by pressing my button I also muted the microphone of the PM. Now as I re-watch the recording of the press conference, it is funny to see that there was not only a battle of words, but also an invisible battle of microphones between the PM and me.

  • 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.

  • Blanka Zöldi