A “Premium room” with a king size bed in Hotel Bulgari. A “Deluxe room” decorated with Italian designer fabrics in the Four Seasons. Or a “Classic suit” in Hotel Armani of up to 70 square meters.
János Lázár, head of the Prime Minister’s Office, could have got any of these hotel rooms when he spent a Friday night in Milan in the summer of 2013. According to his office, Lázár’s hotel bill was 298 thousand forints, which, based on the exchange rates then, amounted to a little more than 1.000 euros. The office keeps refusing to disclose where Lázár stayed but this sum would have been enough for booking rooms (calculating with current prices) in any of the luxury hotels listed above. Several other five-star hotels in Milan offer rooms at one-third of the amount what was paid for Lázár’s accomodation.
Newly and formerly disclosed records show that several hundreds of thousands of forints were spent on other expenses on the Milan trip and on Lázár’s another two-day visit to Zurich. The details of these expenses are not known.
It was in early 2014 when Direkt36’s journalist – then a reporter with Origo – started to ask questions about some of János Lázár’s foreign trips that had much higher hotel bills than other officials’ travels did. When the Prime Minister’s Office failed to provide meaningful answers about the trips, the journalist launched a public information lawsuit with the assistance of Transparency International.
Lázár was accompanied by one person on each trip and the original travel database provided by the government showed only the total value of their hotel bills. The data did not reveal the specific cost of Lázár’s rooms.
The Prime Minister’s Office, however, disclosed some of these details in their answers to a recently submitted, new list of questions by Direkt36. In the case of the trip to Milan, exactly half of the 598 thousand forint hotel bill was spent on Lázár’s room, the office said. This sum included the procurement fee as well, which amounted to 14 thousand forints (44 euros at current rate), records show.
In the case of another trip, the Prime Minister’s Office modified its originally disclosed details. They had said earlier that when Lázár spent one night in Zürich, Switzerland in March 2013, the hotel for him and his aide cost 481 thousand forints (1536 euros). Now the office claims that in fact the bill was only 189 thousand (603 euros), of which 103 thousand (329 euros) was spent on Lázár’s room.
When asked for an explanation of the modification, the Prime Minister’s Office said that the original number included „other costs different from the hotel bill, such as material expenses, which were originally recognized as accommodation expenses”.
„Material expenses” might mean any costs connected to a trip, explained a former government official who had participated in several foreign missions. Theoretically, food costs are not recognized as material expenses, he said, as they have to be covered by the daily stipend of the officials. However, “if a phone charger needs to be bought urgently, it is recognised among material expenses”, explained the former official. He added that higher expenses, such as car rentals, might be recognised as material expenses too.
Prime Minister’s Office’s answer suggests that during Lázár’s two-day travel to Switzerland 290 thousand forints (930 euros) was spent on material expenses. We have asked the office what exactly the money was spent on, but we have not received an answer yet.
Even more was spent on material expenses during Lázár’s travel to Milan. Data on the 2012-2013 foreign missions of the Prime Minister’s Office, previously sent to Direkt36’s journalist, show that 1548 euro (458 thousand forints at current rate) was recognised as material expenses on the travel in July 2013. It means that the two-day travel to Italy of Lázár and his aide cost more than 1 million forint (3213 euros). The government database does not include flight tickets or any other travel expenses, but some of Lázár’s other trips lack these records too.
We asked the Prime Minister’s Office about the details of the material expenses of the trip to Italy, but we have not received any answer yet.
Lázár had a third trip with unusually high hotel bills. This was a mission in London, November 2012, where the cost of two nights’ accommodation for Lázár and his aide was as high as 920 thousand forints (2956 euros). The Prime Minister’s Office said that it is not possible to disclose the specific price of Lázár’s hotel room, as the “accommodation expenses of the delegation were recognized jointly”.
The Prime Minister’s Office provided few details on what Lázár did during these trips, arguing that revealing such details would hurt national interests. During the lawsuit they acknowledged, however, that only the details of the England trip are classified while the Swiss and Italian visits do not have similar protection.
According to a recent court decision, the Prime Minister’s Office has to disclose the details of the meetings (the names of the officials Lázár met and the subjects they discussed) on these two trips. The court ruling is not legally binding yet as the Prime Minister’s Office appealed.
Lázár himself stated that he is determined to prevent the disclosure of details. “The court cannot verify whether what I say is true, because I can say that I do not remember, or I can say something that is not true about with whom I was in the hotel”, said Lázár on a press conference when asked about the court decision, according to Index.
Last summer, Lázár paid the hotel expenses to the state budget from his own pocket, arguing that this makes the details of the trips a private matter.
Lázár claims that revealing the name of the hotel where he stayed would also hurt national interest. In spite of the fact that a legally binding court decision obliges the Prime Minister’s Office to make the hotels’ name public, the Office has turned to the Curia (the highest court in Hungary) for revision. Lázár himself told in an interview last September that the names of the hotels “cannot be revealed”.