In Szakolykert, a suburb of the rural town Nyíradony, a narrow, dusty road runs between the scrub and the village houses. It leads to an electric fence surrounding a decently restored building. This is the Gencsy Mansion, but locals simply call it ’the castle’.
A local civil organization led by László Tasó, currently a state minister in the government, then the mayor of Nyíradony, won 38.3 million HUF (more than 120,000 euros) state money to transform the mansion to a private hotel. The restoration project finished at the end of 2013. A month later, the town of Nyíradony sold the castle to Tasó’s NGO (its members being mostly his family members and former employees or colleagues). The price was significantly lower than the cost of restoration.
This is not the only EU or state-financed project in Nyíradony involving people close to the politician. His secretary’s former company, for example, acquired a recently restored shop at a prominent location in the city centre. The company now belongs to one of Tasó’s relatives. The same secretary, along with Tasó’s daughter and his nephew, got involved in another EU-financed project of Nyíradony as contractors or operators of a recently opened youth centre and bowling pub.
Direkt36 has contacted Tasó and its relatives involved in the project. Our questions were partly about how much public money they got and how they spent it.
After more than three weeks, only the city municipality gave a detailed answer. According to this, during the sale of the city’s properties, the town hall’s actions were in accordance with the law and for the benefit of the city. The audits of its EU-financed projects found no irregularities, the municipality added. The city does not have to care about who members of NGOs or companies are, as long as they keep the laws and act in favour of the city.
László Tasó only briefly responded. He wrote that our questions were based on theories and aim to discredit him. He promised to file lawsuits.
Direkt36 recently published an article about Tasó filing several incomplete wealth declarations. This was part of our project called Vagyonkereső (Asset Locator), aiming to uncover hidden assets of politicians and to show the inconsistencies of the current Hungarian wealth declarations’ system.
Money started pouring and it changed everything
The owner of the old mansion building in Szakolykert used to be the town of Nyíradony, but it had been used as the seat of the Széchenyi Zsigmond Hunting Society since the organization’s foundation in 1992. One of the founders was László Tasó who served as president of the society from 1997 to 2016.
The hunting society applied for funds to renovate the mansion in 2009, and in 2011 the Agricultural and Rural Development Agency (MVH) finally decided to back the idea called “Transforming a noble mansion to a private hotel.”
This triggered changes within the organization. At the general meeting of the society held on the 6th of December in 2012, the president, Tasó, asked the members to contribute to the project financially. It was necessary that the organization covers 10 percent of the costs of the renovation in order to get the state money. However, the vast majority of the members were unwilling to participate.
Instead, they decided to leave the hunting society. In the end, 32 of the 34 members quit to found a new organization. The two remaining members were László Tasó and one of his closest friends, Sándor Tasi. Tasó once called Tasi his “oldest companion”, according to the local monthly newspaper. The two men are co-owners of a property in Hajdúszoboszló, and they are both members of the governing Fidesz party. Tasi now serves as the vice-chairman of the county assembly.
The hunting society’s name was changed to Gúth-Keled Tourism and Nature Protection Association. However, after all the others left, the NGO did not have enough members to continue operating legally. The next general assembly, held ten months later in October of 2013, solved the problem: 9 new members joined the organization. Among them are all three members of the Nyíradony town hall secretariat, Tasó’s former press officer , Tasó’s current secretary in the ministry (who at that time, worked as a project manager at the municipality), his cousin, a nephew and the wife of another nephew.
Direkt36 tried to contact the relatives involved. The ones we managed to reach refused to answer questions but confirmed that they were Tasó’s family members . One of them (Tasó’s cousin, who is the director of the city’s trustee company) told us that the fact that he joined the NGO as a member had nothing to do with his family relations with the politician.
During the mansion’s renovation in 2013, the NGO changed not only its name and composition but also its objectives. Before, they had officially aimed to ensure “modern game management” and “civilized hunting opportunities.” Since then, their goal is to “develop local tourism, the conditions of active recreation (…), accommodation services” and “to initiate and implement welfare projects.”
The renovation started in October 2012 and was completed by December 2013. Four guest rooms with private bathrooms, a complete apartment, a lounge, a kitchen and a dining area were built. The heating system and the wires were refurbished and the building became accessible with wheelchairs. In 2011, MVH awarded 38.3 million HUF (around 120,000 euros) for the renovation of the mansion. According to their website, a total sum of 47.8 million HUF (more than 150,000 euros) was paid to the NGO between 2013 and 2015 for various purposes, mostly associated with “tourism” and “basic rural services.”
The town hall liked the idea
Right after the renovation was finished, the municipality of Nyíradony sold the mansion to the renewed NGO, along with the neighbouring land (in April 2014) designated for further developments. It is unclear how much the organization had paid for the two properties, due to mismatching data in two different resolutions of the municipality. Nevertheless, the amount must have been around one million HUF (approximately 3200 euros, significantly less than the cost of the renovation). Direkt36 has asked the exact price and other details of the story of the mansion from both the municipality and the NGO but neither of them answered our questions.
According to the municipality, the building in its former state was completely useless, and the maintenance works and guarding cost a lot. The town hall was pleased to sell the building to the Gúth-Keled Association because they saw “no other option to save one of the oldest buildings of the city”. “László Tasó, as mayor, as president of the association and as a citizen took on significant liabilities/expenses/hardships to protect the building of the mansion for the sake of future generations”, the city wrote, adding that the selling of the building happened in accordance with the law and the price was well considered.
It was not the only occasion when the representatives of Nyíradony voted in favour of the NGO led by Tasó. The 2015 land use plan of Nyíradony included sections, which help the further touristic developments of the Szakolykert mansion. The area was classified as “special tourism zone.” (Other sections of the land-use plan deal with the development of another part of the town’s outskirts, where an industry park will be developed. Tasó has properties in this area: see the first part of our investigation about the Minister of State.)
Besides, the town has financially supported the NGO’s plans: according to the 2014 annual account of the NGO, they got 1.65 million HUF (5200 euros) municipal money (the MVH money for the restoration was paid the same year). It is unclear from the account why exactly they received the funding.
The NGO planned to acquire another land in the proximity of the mansion. In this two-hectare property (owned by the municipality), they intended to develop an “eco-pond”. The idea of this artificial lake was presented to the town representatives by László Tasó, as president of the NGO. According to the town hall, the association was unsuccessful in applying for state money.
Until 8 March 2016, Tasó officially remained the president and the member of the NGO, although he had signalled his intention to quit more than a year before, according to the NGO’s documents available at the courthouse in Debrecen. Éva Czirják, a member of the town hall’s secretariat was appointed as the new president, and the wife of Tasó’s nephew became vice president. Czirják refused to answer Direkt36’s questions.
Tasó’s shadow cast on a valuable retail space
More people close to Tasó have been involved in EU-funded projects in Nyíradony. For instance, a company linked to Tasó’s circles has become the owner of a small but valuable building in the centre of Nyíradony, just in front of the town hall.
The building was renovated as part of an EU-funded development project that aimed to renew the centre of Nyíradony, and it cost 24.3 million HUF (according to another document, 31.8 million HUF) (68,000 or 100,000 euro). The renovated building had three pavilions and one of them was bought by a firm called Rekreáció-Plusz Ltd.
According to the town hall, the reconstruction of the pavilions was part of a huge EU-project which aimed to renew the whole city centre. It was compulsory to have partners from the private sector, and after the pavilions were sold several times, Rekreáció-Plusz Ltd. offered to buy it. The company was willing to pay 50 per cent of the expenses required for the project and the VAT. (The city hall did not specify the amount of this.) “When selling the pavilion, the municipality acted in accordance with the law and for the benefit of the citizens”, the city hall wrote, adding that the audits of the EU project did not find any mistakes in the process.
The company was founded in 2013 by Henrietta Kincs, who had worked at the municipality, then later as the secretary of Tasó as an MP, and today she works at Tasó’s secretariat of in the Ministry of National Development. This March, Kincs was given an award by the minister for her exemplary work.
In September 2014, Kincs sold the entire company for 1000 HUF (a little more than 3 euros) to a woman from Debrecen, who is also a member of Tasó’s extended family, according to local sources and company registry data. (Direkt36 attempted to contact her but she refused to answer our questions.)
The Rekreáció-Plusz Ltd. got the pavilion for less than 2 million HUF (6350 euros), Direkt36 calculated. The building would soon be rented by the local savings bank called Hajdú Takarék, the CEO of the bank, Lászlóné Pénzes confirmed to Direkt36. Thus, the rentals will go to the company instead of the municipality.
Rekreáció-Plusz Ltd. also appears around the castle in Szakolykert. Officially, the building of the mansion is the registered address of the company, their name being posted on the gate of the mansion. Their main business is hotel operation, according to the company registry. The mansion is, however, officially run by the civil group once led by Tasó. The association told us that the company rents an office in the mansion but has nothing to do with running the hotel. So far, Rekreáció-Plusz Ltd. has not had significant business activities, its revenue was barely one million HUF (roughly 3200 euros) in the last two years.
And on the youth centre
Henrietta Kincs is also the leader of a local non-profit organization called Kincses Titánok. This NGO was a consortium member in a recent EU-funded project in Nyíradony, led by the municipality. Part of this project was to restore the old cinema building in the city centre and transform it to a youth centre. It cost 71.5 million HUF (225 thousand euros).
Besides the municipality and Henrietta Kincs’s NGO, there were other members in the consortium. One was another NGO called Stílus Egylet, then led by Marianna Tasó, daughter of the politician. This NGO was responsible for the “community functions” of the youth centre and got 39,5 million HUF for the work. The signature of Marianna Tasó can be seen next to the mayor’s on the reconstruction contract.
The youth centre and the bowling pub was successfully opened in the restored building in May. The bowling pub is officially operated by the city’s company called Nyíradonyi Vagyonkezelő Ltd. They looked for a private company to run the bowling pub, and the best offer (from 3 competitors) was of Relax and Peace Ltd., founded this March. The company is owned by Tasó’s nephew, Gusztáv Szilágyi.