MCC’s luxury spending leaked, from a €250 thousand winter camp to blatantly expensive receptions

In a few years, conditions at the Mathias Corvinus Collegium winter camp have changed a lot. Previously, the camp was usually held at the Ceglédfürdő student camp, where campers slept in rooms with bunk beds and received simple student camp-style meals.

But the 2023 winter camp was held in Ótátrafüred, Slovakia.  During the day, campers could choose from a number of different activities: skiing with the help of instructors, field trips to a nearby „ice-church” or a whisky distillery, wandering in the Bachledka canopy walkway. In the evening, the 450 participants did not relax on camp beds, but in one of the most elegant hotels in Ótátrafüred, the four-star Grand Hotel Bellevue, rented especially for the occasion. An indoor swimming pool, a spa, squash-bowling and billiards courts, two restaurants and a nightclub were all there to help them recharge.

Other higher education institutions also organise winter trips for their students, but MCC’s camp was exceptional not only because of the luxurious conditions. While in other places students typically attend on a self-pay basis, in recent years the MCC camp, which is endowed with a huge fortune from taxpayers’ money and is close to the government, had the camp’s gross cost of €255.000 paid for in full by the college.

This emerges from internal MCC purchasing and payment data obtained by Direkt36. The data from the last few years provide a more detailed insight than ever before into the spendings of the internationally expanding institution, which is closely linked to the government in its global outlook. The data and information from sources familiar with the MCC’s operations have revealed details such as:

– MCC spent nearly €1,5 million on catering costs for its events. According to our research, this is a blatantly high amount of money spent on catering at MCC events. The amount of money spent per person is enough to provide luxury catering by other market companies.

– At their events, the catering is almost always handled by Apriori Cultura Nonprofit Zrt., which runs the Scruton cafés, and has billed MCC a gross total €1,4 million over the past two years. Until 2021, Apriori was the interest of MCC director general Zoltán Szalai, and is currently owned by Fidesz-affiliated owners.

– They also spare no expense to invite guest speakers from abroad: for example, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s son Yair Netanyahu, a long-time ally of prime minister Viktor Orbán, was paid €7000  for two one-hour panel discussions.

– Participants of their foreign scholarship program receive 3-5,000 euros a month, and many have been in the scholarship programme for years.

– Many study trips abroad are organised, often with participants staying in four-star hotels, and sources close to MCC contacted by Direkt36 are not aware of students being asked to pay for travel.

– They spend a lot of money at companies close to the government: at companies owned by Gyula Balásy, the trusted conductor of government propaganda campaigns, MCC spent a net amount of €4,6 million in eight months, €510.000 gross at 4iG, and €148.000 gross at Balaton Bútor Kft., a company at the interest of Ádám Matolcsy, the son of the director of the Hungarian National Bank.

– In comparison, the entire annual budgets of other renowned and well-established vocational colleges in Budapest range between €102.000-280.000. These places do not spend millions on catering either; in one of them, the students themselves prepare sandwiches for events.

We sent a detailed questionnaire to MCC about the sometimes seemingly blatant expenditure detailed in the article, but they did not respond. They confirmed that the events and trips are free of charge for their students, but added that social criteria are taken into account when selecting participants. They stressed that the Foundation “manages the assets entrusted to it in a responsible, transparent and prudent manner, in compliance with the law and the Foundation’s internal regulations, and is accountable to the Board of Trustees”.

Sweets, snails and martial arts

On 10 April 2022, the MCC headquarters in Budapest’s Tas Vezér Street hosted an election night to mark the presidential elections in France. It was a close race between far-right candidate Marine Le Pen and centrist Emmanuel Macron. The evening was held in the Scruton café on the ground floor of the building, named after the British conservative philosopher Roger Scruton.

The venue was decorated with blue, white and red balloons and lanterns and life-size cardboard cut-outs of Marine Le Pen, Emmanuel Macron, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Eric Zemmour and other French politicians in the race. In the café, a chocolate factory was holding a bonbon-making workshop, while at the photo booth, people could pose in rice-pod wigs, national-colour sunglasses and berets against a green backdrop, on which the booth projected a French cityscape as a backdrop.

At the event in true French style they served champagne, wine, snails, liver pâté and croissants to the hundred or so participants, but there were also sandwiches, refreshments and snacks. Internal documents obtained by Direkt36 show that the Apriori Cultura Nonprofit Zrt., which operates Scruton, charged MCC a little over €10.000 gross for the event, which lasted just a few hours.

The French evening is not even the most expensive of the election nights. The 2022 Hungarian election night cost €21.000 gross, the Italian event cost the same. The Brazilian night cost MCC €20.000, the South Korean €6000 and the Israeli €5300. Common features at these events included decorations inspired by the colours of the flag of the country, cardboard cut-outs of politicians and a workshop on the country’s customs. The Italian evening, for example, was devoted to pasta making, while the Israeli evening was devoted to the martial art of krav maga. At some events, guests were also treated to a hot dinner typical of the cuisine of the country.

For its bigger events, MCC spends even more. The catering for the three days of the Budapest Summit in October 2022 cost €74.000  – just a little more than the single night of the Christmas party, which cost €61.000 to cater for food and drink.

According to MCC sources, the catering is always very similar. The smaller, shorter events include sandwiches, cakes, snacks and soft drinks, while the evenings include beer, wine and possibly champagne. At conferences, there is a full day of snacks, and for lunch a buffet menu with traditional, uncomplicated dishes.

For VIP guests – usually prominent foreign guests, leaders of MCC and other partner institutions – private gala dinners are also organised, but usually at an external venue. Among the expenses, we found items of €3500; 5600; 8900 and 11500 titled as gala dinners at the Aranybástya Restaurant of the Lajos Batthyány Foundation. This foundation has received several high-value grants from the Prime Minister’s Cabinet Office lead by Antal Rogán for example €23,5 million in January 2023. And in 2022 alone, the foundation gave more than €1 million to Apriori. Its Board of Trustees is chaired by Tamás Dezső, Director of the MCC Migration Research Institute.

When contacted, the Aranybástya restaurant said that they do not differentiate between their guests and always act in accordance with market conditions.

Strange prices

There are indications that MCC events are characterised by outlandish pricing.

At least Direkt36 has contacted two catering companies that have been active in the market for a long time and have experience in organising events for hundreds of people. The companies asked not to be named, but conversations revealed that they could provide food and drink for much less than the amounts charged by MCC.

For one occassion we asked how much it would cost to host a so-called finger food reception. It is common practice for caterers to calculate with 12 bites per attendee. We went further, asking for a total of 3,000 snacks, dips and desserts per 200 participants, plus two bottles of craft beer and two bottles of freshly squeezed juice per person, for which we received a gross bid of €5100  from a company that works with many special ingredients and vegan options.

Finger food and welcome drinks were also included in the receipts of the 2023 Corvin Ball, and according to photos posted on social media, the event was attended by around 200 people. For this event, Apriori invoiced a gross of € 17800, which is more than three times the amount of the offer received from the other company.In 2022, MCC had even managed to get the ball for a much lower price, when the catering cost only €5600, although the details of the service were not specified at that time.

For the buffet, the difference between the bid from a market caterer and the amount MCC spent was even more striking. The owner of a catering company told Direkt36 that the gross price of a buffet dinner at their place was €20-40 per person. He knows of competitors who charge between €45-60 gross per person. The non-alcoholic drinks package cost €7 per person, and the alcoholic drinks package an €15 per person. A seated gala dinner (where the guests are served by waiters) also costs a maximum of €160 gross, but more likely €95 per person.

According to payment data, Apriori invoiced the catering for the 2022 Budapest Summit event for €73900. According to MCC’s own accounts, the three-day event was attended by nearly 800 people, which means that €92,5 per person were spent on catering. This means that MCC’s catering cost more than three times as much as the offer of the company we interviewed.

Nor can the quality or exclusivity of the food explain the high cost of MCC catering. While there is no specific description of what exactly was served at the 2022 event, MCC sources say that similar catering is typically offered at Budapest Summit events. One such event was held in February this year, and Direkt36’s contributor attended. Coffee, tea, soft drinks and fruit juice, scones and cakes were served all day, and during the lunch break there was a buffet with a variety of dishes to choose from. The choices included cream of broccoli soup, roast pork and apple pie.

Based on information from a market company, the money spent by MCC could have covered a seated gala dinner with waiters and more elegant, expensive dishes than cream of broccoli soup.

"Years ago, we had an event for 1200 people with lunch and a gala dinner with 400 people, exclusive wine and spirits, serious technology, that cost a gross of €51.000. If you add inflation, today it would cost about €74.000," says the catering company owner.

As mentioned above, until 2021 Apriori was owned by MCC Director General Zoltán Szalai, who, in addition to running the college, also plays an important role in the government propaganda machine: he is the editor-in-chief of the Mandiner weekly newspaper and online news portal.

In 2021, Szalai left Apriori, but the company remained a pro-government interest. One of Apriori's current owners and its CEO, Ivett Pesti used to chair the board of the biggest company in the eighth district (Józsefvárosi Gazdálkodási Központ Zrt) during the mayorship of Máté Kocsis, a leading Fidesz politician.

The other owner, Zsófia Ágnes Fejérdy, also shows signs of government ties. Previously, she owned a company that received ministry subsidies and, according to parliamentary records, Csaba Dömötör, a Fidesz MP and one of Antal Rogán's state secretaries, rents an apartment from a person of the same name. We asked Zsófia Ágnes Fejérdy whether Csaba Dömötör rents an apartment from her and, if so, how they met, but no reply was received by the time this article was published.

In addition to catering events, Apriori also signs annual contracts with MCC. The buffet at the main building was operated for €377.000 a year in 2022, while the one at the Révfülöp site received €204.000 for the same.

A detailed questionnaire was sent to Apriori asking about their pricing practices and their work with MCC. In their reply, they wrote that their company

"participated in the procurement procedures for the operation of a canteen by the Mathias Corvinus Collegium, of which it was declared the successful tenderer".

They explained the difference in prices between the events by the 'difference in the specific content of the services' and added that they 'constantly monitor the market in terms of pricing in order to maintain their competitiveness'.

Elsewhere, the MP also gets a scone

With spending of this magnitude, MCC stands out among similar educational institutions. At least, this is what emerged from Direkt36's interviews with representatives of three university-funded and one church-run college about their finances.

For example, one of the Corvinus vocational colleges - which, with an annual budget of around €280.000, is one of the wealthier colleges - does not have catering for its internal events, but is available to outsiders, and for its events for 40-50 people, students prepare a few sandwiches in the college's kitchen, for which they buy groceries for €50-60.

"We once debated at a student committee meeting that it would be easier to order from somewhere, but we voted it down. And it's still a big deal that we're serving something to our guests. In most vocational colleges, catering is a non-existent category," said the college's student leader.

They have one more elegant event, but even that is not held every year. This is usually an event with 400-500 participants for which they rent a venue. There is a buffet dinner and champagne, but the entrance fee for students is €5, and for members of the alumni community - former students - €25.

At another ELTE-affiliated college, students also cook at larger community events and for the smaller ones, they buy a kilo or two of scones and a few bottles of water. "We've even had a member of parliament come to talk to us, but we gave him scones too," said the student leader of the college. The annual budget of the college is between €100.000 and 127.000, but discussions are underway with the maintaining institution about having €50.000 cut from the budget for next year.

Students always pay for camps and larger events themselves, and this is true of all the vocational colleges we interviewed. The cost of a four-day winter and summer camp for 100 students at the Corvinus college ranges between €10-15.000.

"We always go to some kind of classic bunk-bed camp, where they serve classic camp food. We could manage to go up a level in this, but we always decide that there is a better place for that money elsewhere," said the college director.

We also talked to a college run by a church, where the monthly membership fee is very high compared to the others, €112. They try to support those in need with a social scholarship programme, but most of their 60 or so members pay the full amount. Some of the dormitory rooms are rented out to external students as dormitories for an even higher fee, and the money they raise is one of the keys to their operation. In addition, some support is occasionally received from the church foundation that runs the college. Their annual summer camps usually receive five hundred thousand forints from the dormitory budget, the rest of the costs being collected from the participants.

The enriching MCC

The MCC has always been a Fidesz-affiliated institution, operating since 1996. One of its founders, András Tombor, was the prime minister's chief security advisor during the first Orbán government and was in contact with several influential Fidesz politicians and backbenchers.

The big change came in 2020, when a government decision granted 10 percent of the shares of the Hungarian oil giant, Mol Plc. and 10 percent of Richter Gedeon Plc (one of Hungary’s biggest pharmaceutical companies) to MCC. The two blocks of shares are worth a total of around €1 billion. MCC finances its operations from the proceeds of these shares, with €92 million raised as dividends in 2022. They have also received more than €255 million in direct state subsidies and have taken ownership of the Somlói Road dormitory building and the adjacent office building, as well as the Révfülöp sailing port. They not only received but also bought property in eleven cities. MCC has been the owner of the Libri-Bookline group since 2021, and in June 2023 they acquired a majority stake, making them the 98.41% owners of the country's largest book publisher.

Operations have also increased in line with targets. The MCC now has 736 employees, compared to 105 at the time of the 2020 reorganisation. More than €2,8 million was spent on IT purchases over two years, according to the documents, including €510.000 million at 4iG, whose close links to Viktor Orbán were revealed by Direkt36.

In several of their other purchases, they do not venture too far from government circles. They spent €148.000 on furniture at Balaton Bútor Kft., which is owned by the son of central bank president Ádám Matolcsy, and contracted with Lounge Design Kft. of Gyula Balásy, the businessman who runs the government's propaganda campaigns, and New Land Media Reklám Kft. for "complex communication and event management tasks" for a net €4,6 million for the period between 16 February and 31 December 2022.

On these contracts, MCC said.

'a proper procurement procedure was carried out for the named suppliers and the bids of these companies were declared successful, taking into account professional and financial criteria'.

As the Foundation's assets have grown, MCC has become increasingly ambitious. Sources with a close insight into the college's affairs have reported that the plan is now to create a top international intellectual institution close to the government's ideology.

They select the guests they invite to their events accordingly. According to sources familiar with the organisation of the events, the central instruction is to seek guests from the closest partner institutions, i.e. the Centre for Fundamental Rights, the Hungarian Institute for Foreign Studies and the National University of Public Service. If a star foreign lecturer is brought in, efforts are always made to ensure that he or she is present at the partner institutions during their stay, thus building up the diplomatic network. There is a common database which is accessible to all staff in the partner institutions. The names and contact details of everyone who has ever attended an event, whether at the MCC or at a partner institution, are entered so that partner institutions can search for them again and again.

Direkt36 sent questions to these partner institutions, but only the National University of Public Service (NUPS) responded. In their reply, they wrote that their only cooperation with MCC is in the field of sustainable development and environmental sustainability. Concerning the presence of joint guests, they said that their partner institutions are informed separately about their flagship events, and that sometimes their foreign invited speakers also participate in professional events at other institutions, and sometimes other institutions' guests visit the NEC. No response was received to the question on the common database.

According to financial data obtained by Direkt36, the MCC also spends a considerable amount on foreign guests.

The accounts include a commission contract item of €127.000 with the Worldwide Speakers Group, without name and date. This brokerage firm also represents the British historian Niall Ferguson, who was one of the guests at the MCC's 2021 annual opening alongside Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

In 2021, the MCC paid a gross amount of €31.000  for the contract of Norman Lewis, former Innovation Director of the British consultancy and audit firm PwC, for a period from 1 March to 31 May 2023. In addition, a further €4000 was paid to Lewis for a study and lecture. A fee contract of €17.000 was concluded with the German philosopher Alexander Grau, but it is not clear from the documents how long this contract is for.

Benjamin Netanyahu's son, Yair Netanyahu, received €7100 for two one-hour panel discussions at the January 2023 Publishing Conference, where he discussed possible business models for online media and print media, and, together with Gergely István Kovács, CEO of Megafon, explained how he has built his own "success story in the online world".He will return in 2024 for a panel discussion on the rise of new forms of anti-Semitism. There is no record of how much he was paid for this, and neither Netanyahu nor the MCC would give any details.

They are also willing to pay a lot for Hungarian guests. Feró Nagy and Beatrice gave a one-hour concert for €8100 at the MCC Festival 2022, while chef Zé Fördős, founder of Street Kitchen, received €1600 for an hour-long appearance at the same event, during which he discussed Hungarian gastronomy with chefs and food writers. When contacted, Feró Nagy's representation said that the appearance fee is a business secret, but usually the band signs a contract that includes all related costs.

Although in most cases the guests invited to MCC events are close to the Hungarian government in terms of their worldview, there are exceptions. One of them was Radek Sikorski, the current and former Polish Foreign Minister, who has often criticised the Orbán government. He previously wrote in a letter to Tamás Deutsch that the Hungarian government was "sucking up to Vladimir Putin", and in an interview with Válasz Online he said that he had not defended Viktor Orbán within the European Union since a special law was passed to drive the CEU out of the country.

Sikorski was invited by the MCC to the 2022 MCC Fest to debate with Patrick Deenan, a conservative professor at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, "on the future of humanity". Sikorski's trip was billed at a gross cost of €41000 by the Irish agency Chartwell Speakers.

The MCC's response to the lecturers and guests states that it is a priority for the MCC to be part of an international network of professional organisations carrying out similar activities, and that Norman Lewis, Alexander Grau, Jair Netanyahu and Radek Sikorski have been in contact with the MCC in this context. However, the specific tasks of the trainers and speakers and the fees of the guests were not discussed.

Where teachers are valued

The practices of MCC and other colleges also differ significantly in terms of teacher pay. The vocational colleges we spoke to are able to pay their lecturers between €433 and €660 gross per semester, with courses lasting between 6 to 12 lectures. Some colleges have not increased their salaries for fifteen years because they have not had the opportunity to do so.

We have not looked at the salaries of the lecturers employed by MCC, but the honoraria of several foreign scholars have been included in the documents.

The fellows came to Hungary as part of the MCC Visiting Fellowship programme to work on a research topic of their choice while teaching at MCC. According to the call for applications, they will be paid a maximum of €5,000 per month for students under 35 years of age, and a maximum of €10,000 per month for students over 35, plus housing, office space, health insurance and, where appropriate, family support.

According to MCC sources, the level of remuneration will depend on the academic achievements of the individual, whether he or she has written a book and what he or she would like to work on within MCC. The duration of the fellowship ranges from two weeks to a year, but MCC sources say it is common for fellows to be retained after a year if there is mutual sympathy. Such was the case with French historian Thibauld Gibelin, who has been an MCC fellow and visiting lecturer for several years and whose book  "Viktor Orbán Plays to Win" was published in 2022.

Meanwhile, other universities get to receive visiting lecturers and scholars from abroad only once or twice every six months. Gábor Polyák, head of the Institute for Art Theory and Media Research at Eötvös Loránd University and head of the Department of Media and Communication, told Direkt36 that even if there was previously a budget for hosting foreign guest lecturers, these funds are now drying up. Today there are no longer any scholarship programmes for foreign lecturers, only external applications such as Erasmus+ and Fulbright can be used for this purpose. Therefore, it is rare that universities can host foreign teachers for longer than a single conference visit, and Polyak says this has been the case in all the departments he has worked in over the last 20 years.

In one Erasmus+ programme for teachers, the per diem ranges from €110 to €170 depending on the destination country, so even if you work 20 days - which is typically the shorter time teachers travel - you can expect to pay between €2,200 and €3,400 per month, compared to the MCC's €5-10,000.

The MCC also spends generously on study trips abroad. For example, former State Secretary Zoltán Cséfalvay, head of the Technological Futures Workshop, spent a total of €138.000 on eleven trips between 2022 and 2023, either alone or with students, according to the accounting data. Among the expenditures linked to Cséfalvay's name, five items are listed as credit card top-ups for individual study trips totalling more than €25000. For example, the former State Secretary's card was charged with €12500 for seven days of the Silicon Wadi study trip to Israel, €8400 for eleven days in California's Silicon Valley and €3300 for a four-day conference in London.

We asked the MCC about the reasons for Zoltán Cséfalvay's travel on a particularly large budget, and about their practice of sharing the available resources between workshops and educational units. In their reply they wrote that

"Prof. Dr. Zoltán Cséfalvay, as Head of the Technological Futures Workshop, is doing his teaching work to a very high standard. He organises several international scientific conferences a year and study trips for his students, where MCC students can meet with company managers, university professors and other experts."

The MCC also spends huge sums on study trips abroad. Groups of students have travelled to Israel, Washington DC, Silicon Valley, Miami, Toronto, Italy, Riga, The Hague, Stockholm, Vienna, Strasbourg, Brussels, Rome, Ljubljana, Athens, Seville, Luxembourg, and other places. For these trips alone, the College spent more than €204.000.

Staff interviewed at the other colleges agreed that it is important and good practice for the MCC to send many students on trips abroad. "If all the money was spent on this, I would shake Zoltán Szalai's hand in appreciation, as this is the most a vocational college can give to its students," a source at another college said, and referring to other MCC spending, added: "It is a pity that this is not the case."

  • Ágnes Gólya

    Ágnes graduated in television production from the University of Theatre and Film Arts in 2019 and after a short detour in television she worked as a journalist for Forbes Hungary for four years. There she was the editor of the most influential Hungarian women list for two years, and worked for three years on the list of the 50 wealthiest Hungarians. She also covered venture capital and the Hungarian startup ecosystem. She was awarded the Junior Prima Prize in 2022 and joined Direkt36 in October 2023.

  • Balázs Schneider