The hounding of Greece’s former statistics chief is disturbing

IMAGINE the tale of Sisyphus, the mythical king doomed to spend eternity pushing a boulder up a hill only for it to roll back down, retold by Kafka. The result would be very like the tortuous story of Andreas Georgiou, Greece’s former statistics chief.

Since 2011 Mr Georgiou has faced several criminal charges. One is that he inflated budget-deficit figures, forcing Greece to seek a bail-out and resulting in alleged damages of €171bn ($190bn). Another is that he violated his duty by failing to seek approval from the statistical agency’s board before sending the figures to the European authorities.

Although Mr Georgiou was acquitted several times on both charges, the acquittals were annulled and he was retried. In 2017 he was found guilty of a violation of duty. He has now learnt that the Supreme Court had rejected his appeal, rendering the conviction final. It carries a two-year suspended sentence. In May prosecutors said they were refiling the charges that he inflated the figures and thus injured Greece. He will now be tried for a third time in the court of appeals. If found guilty, he could face life in prison.

Yet both Mr Georgiou’s numbers and his methodology were verified by Europe’s statistical agency. The method is still accepted by Greece’s creditors and its government. The chief statistician is also legally required to be independent: statistics tend not to be decided by committee.

A former official at the IMF, Mr Georgiou moved to the newly independent statistical agency in 2010, after Greece had been bailed out for the first time and its budget-deficit figures were found to have been severely underreported. He oversaw a relatively small revision to the deficit for 2009, from 13.6% to 15.4% of GDP. Nevertheless, his detractors—from both ends of the political spectrum—have accused Mr Georgiou of conspiring with outsiders to subject Greece to austerity. Political appointees to the statistical agency’s board initiated the charge that he violated his duty.

The sheer number of times that charges against Mr Georgiou have been dropped and refiled raises eyebrows, says Elias Papaioannou of London Business School. But the case, he argues, accords with a broader picture of a dysfunctional, overloaded judicial system that is open to influence from politicians and oligarchs. Swingeing cuts to salaries and budgets have worsened the problem.

Cases such as Mr Georgiou’s are unlikely to tempt foreigners to invest in Greece—at least not without demanding compensation for the risk that they will be ensnared in litigation. Nor will they convince investors that Greece’s days of fiddling figures are well in the past.

Mr Georgiou says that the bleak implications of his case extend beyond Greece. Unscrupulous politicians will be tempted to fudge figures to win votes, or to give lenders false reassurance. His experience may be a cautionary tale for statisticians too. Objectivity is their most precious virtue. They can pay dearly for it.

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