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In Greece, A Technocrat Faces Life In Prison

Dec 16, 2011
Originally published on December 19, 2011 7:50 am

Andreas Georgiou is the technocrat charged with running the Greek statistics office — the same office that, in the years leading up to the financial crisis, produced wildly distorted reports of Greece's finances.

"My goal is to make this a competent, boring institution and not to be in the limelight," Georgiou told me recently. "Not to have to give an interview like this one."

So far, though, his efforts have been met with resistance, strikes and a criminal investigation that could lead to life in prison for Georgiou.

His first priority after he was appointed was to figure out how big Greece's deficit really was back in 2009, when the crisis began. He looked through all the data and concluded that Greece's deficit that year was 15.8 percent of GDP — higher what had previously been reported.

Eurostat, the central authority in Luxembourg, praised Georgiou's methodology and blessed the number as true. The hundreds of Greek people who work beneath Georgiou — the old guard — did not.

"Everybody said, 'Oh, what number is this?' says Konstantinos Skordas. "We expected to discuss this matter."

Skordas sits on a governing board for the statistics office. His board wanted to debate and vote on the deficit number before anyone in Brussels was allowed to see it. Georgiou, the technocrat, saw that as a threat to his independence. He refused. The number is the number, he said. It's not something to be put up for a vote.

This was not a popular decision.

Georgiou's email was hacked, he says. Statistics workers went on strike, picketing outside the building. And a Greek prosecutor began investigating Georgiou for allegedly acting in cahoots with Eurostat and deliberately trying to make Greece look bad by inflating the deficit number. If Georgiou is charged and convicted, he faces life in prison.

I asked Skordas why Greek officials can't work together with Georgiou and the European statistics service.

"Eurostat is not our boss," he said. "Each country is independent!"

This is not how a technocrat thinks.

"To me there is no Greek statistics versus European statistics," Georgiou says. "It is all European statistics. And we have to follow the European rules. There is not us and them. We are not sitting on opposite sides of the table."

For the euro to succeed, people like Skordas will have to buy into Georgiou's vision. All Europeans sitting on the same side of the table: the technocrats' side.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Eurostat is located in Brussels. It is located in Luxembourg.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's go now to a building in Greece, where you could say the European debt crisis began and where it may reach its conclusion. Chana Joffe-Walt with our Planet Money team is our guide.

CHANA JOFFE-WALT, BYLINE: Forty-six Peireos Street does not have an exciting title or mission, really, for being the place where an enormous financial crisis began. It is the Greek Statistics Agency. What happened was that in October, 2009, after an election in Greece, the new party came in and said: Remember how we said the Greek deficit was around 6.7 percent of GDP? Yeah, it's actually twice that. Konstantinos Skordas works in the statistics office.

KONSTANTINOS SKORDAS: Everyone here in Greece said: What number is this? What happened?

JOFFE-WALT: So what did happen? I don't...

SKORDAS: Nobody knows.

JOFFE-WALT: You guys work in the statistics office

SKORDAS: Yes.

JOFFE-WALT: Did you cook the numbers?

SKORDAS: No. I believe no. But I don't know what the politicians did.

JOFFE-WALT: This number shocked the world, especially the world of investors. They panicked - and not just about Greece, but about Ireland and then Portugal, Spain, Italy. The crisis had begun.

So last week, European leaders announced they had a plan to save the euro. There will be one strong, central power to review and approve the budgets of all euro countries. And if that central power is not happy, it will send its own people in, technocrats, to fix things. That's the new plan. But in Greece, the technocrats have already arrived. The first place they went: 46 Peireos Street.

ANDREAS GEORGIOU: My goal is to make this a competent, boring institution and not to be in the limelight. Actually, not to have to give an interview like this one.

JOFFE-WALT: Andreas Georgiou is the technocrat charged with saving the Greek statistics office. He's the kind of guy that opens a conversation by telling you he'd prefer you disappear. He's shy. He's Greek, but he's lived outside the country for the last two decades working at the IMF.

His first priority when he got to Athens was get to the bottom of that 2009 deficit number. He looked through all the data and determined the final deficit number to be 15.8 percent, bigger than the deficit number that started the crisis and much higher than the one before that.

Eurostat, the central authority in Brussels, praised Georgiou's methodology and blessed the number as true. Now, the hundreds of Greek people who work beneath Georgiou at the statistics office, the old guard like Skordas Konstantinos, did not.

SKORDAS: Everybody said, Oh, what number is this? We expected to discuss this matter.

JOFFE-WALT: Skordas sits on a governing board for the statistics office. And his board wanted to debate and vote on the deficit number before anyone in Brussels was allowed to see it. Georgiou, the technocrat saw that as a threat to his independence. He refused. The number is the number he said, you can't vote on it.

GEORGIOU: But then something happened that was absolutely shocking.

JOFFE-WALT: Georgiou says his email was hacked by his staff, one of the Greek old guard. The accused denies this vigorously. There's a criminal investigation. Then there were strikes against Georgiou, the technocrat - statistics workers picketing outside the building. And then, in October, Georgiou, got an invitation from the Greek prosecutor for economic crimes.

GEORGIOU: To my surprise, they asked me where my lawyer was.

JOFFE-WALT: Turned out, the prosecutor was investigating Georgiou himself, for allegedly acting in cahoots with Eurostat and European authorities, deliberately trying to make Greece look bad by inflating the deficit number. If Georgiou is charged, he faces life in prison.

GEORGIOU: Potentially, under something called breach of faith against the state.

JOFFE-WALT: So, at this point, this process, sending in the technocrat to bring everyone in line - the idea which is at the center of the plan to rescue Europe - seems to be going very badly.

When I ask Konstantinos Skordas, the Greek old guard, what is exactly is the problem? Why can't you work together with the technocrat and the European Statistics Service? He says this...

SKORDAS: Eurostat is not our boss. Each country is independent. It's not a - we are not part of the Eurostat. We are a service of Greece. We are not service of Eurostat.

GEORGIOU: To me, there is no Greek statistics versus European statistics.

JOFFE-WALT: Again, Georgiou the technocrat.

GEORGIOU: It is all European statistics. And we have to follow the European rules. There is not us and them. We are not sitting on opposite sides of the table.

JOFFE-WALT: For the moment, they do appear to be sitting on opposite sides of the table. If what the euro needs is fiscal unity to really work, it'll mean getting people like Skordas to buy into Georgiou's vision: all Europeans, all on the same side of the table - the technocrats' side.

Chana Joffe-Walt, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.