Update 2015, December 3: There has been a new development in the lawsuit that is a subject of this article. The court of appeal ruled against Direkt36, saying that it is not in the public interest to know the names of those that János Lázár met during two of his official trips. The court made this decision even though Lázár himself made it clear several times that he conducted those negotiations on behalf of the government and in issues concerning the country. The ruling cannot be appealed but a review can be asked from the Highest Court of Hungary. Direkt36 – in partnership with Transparency International who is providing legal assistance – will take advantage of this possibility.
The Prime Minister’s Office has to disclose details of some of the negotiations conducted by its chief, János Lázár, on foreign trips which initially drew attention because of high hotel bills, the Budapest-Capital Regional Court ruled on Monday.
The public information lawsuit was launched by a journalist of Direkt36 with the legal assistance of Transparency International, an anti-corruption organization, after the government had failed to answer questions about Lázár’s meetings.
Two meetings are the subject of the trial. Both took place in 2013, one in Switzerland and one in Italy. The court decided that the Prime Minister’s Office has to disclose the name and rank of Lázár’s negotiation partners. The office also has to reveal who initiated the meetings and why and what subjects were discussed by the partners, the court ruled.
The ruling is not legally binding. The Prime Minister’s Office has the option to appeal the decision.
During the first hearing of the trial, held on May 8, the lawyer of the Prime Minister’s Office argued that the details of the meetings were not recorded and therefore there is no information that could be disclosed. Dániel Karsai, the lawyer representing Direkt36’s journalist, rejected this argument, saying that it „defies common sense” that such records are not kept related to official trips.
This is the second lawsuit launched against the Prime Minister’s Office over Lázár’s trips. The first was also launched by András Pethő, a co-founder of Direkt36, last year when he was still working for newsportal Origo. Transparency International has been providing legal assistance for Pethő in that trial too.
The first lawsuit started after the Prime Minister’s Office had refused to answer questions about some of Lázár’s trips that resulted in unusually high hotel bills. On a 2012 November three-day trip to England the hotel stay cost more than 3000 euros, on a 2013 March two-day trip to Switzerland it was nearly 1547 euros, and on another two-day trip to Italy in July 2013 it was more than 1920 euros. (In a recent document, the Prime Minister’s Office provided a much lower number for the Swiss hotel bill but failed to clarify the discrepancy.)
No other trips of other officials of the Prime Minister’s Office carried hotel bills that were nearly as high as these in 2012 and 2013, a period examined by Pethő.
The Prime Minister’s Office argued that the trips’ details cannot be released for national security reasons. They said that the trips were related to Lázár’s duties as the supervisor of the Information Agency, the government’s intelligence office.
A recent legally binding court ruling forces the Prime Minister’s Office to disclose the details of the Swiss and Italian hotel bills. The office, however, turned to the Curia, the supreme court of Hungary, for a review. It is not clear yet whether the review will stall the execution of the verdict.
The latest rulings do not cover Lázár’s visit to England. The Prime Minister’s Office disclosed during the initial trial in the lower court that there was a confidential document pertaining to that trip. The court requested the document but the government has failed to provide it yet, delaying the decision. The trial over the England trip is still continuing at the lower court.
After the lower court’s decision on the Swiss and Italian trips last May, Lázár announced that he would pay back the hotel expenses to the state budget. He also said that he would be ready to provide the court with details about his “travel habits”. Later, however, his office appealed the decision.