The Kočner cases

For over 20 years, the controversial businessman Marian Kočner was widely suspected of multiple financial crimes, including VAT fraud, forging promissory notes, and even taking over a popular independent TV station. Though police opened investigations into some of these cases, and the evidence of his crimes was publicly available and overwhelming, Kočner was never successfully prosecuted.

Blackmail, corruption, and personal connections with pliant prosecutors, judges, and well-placed insiders. His success paints an unflattering picture of the justice system in a country that has often been touted as a poster child for successful transition from communist rule to European rule of law.

Kočner first entered the public eye in the late ‘90s. Since then, his name appeared in many other important financial cases.

Technopol building in Bratislava, source: Wikipedia

The First Technopol Case (1992-1995)

The original “Technopol case” was a murky scheme in which well-connected insiders allegedly defrauded a Slovak textile company, Technopol, of $2.3 million in a phony import deal.

German police, who were investigating the cross-border case, suspected that Kočner and a co-conspirator — Michal Kováč, Jr., the son of Slovakia’s president at the time, Michal Kováč — were behind the scam. An international arrest warrant was issued in 1994.

Subsequent developments in the remarkable case were emblematic of the political chaos of post-Communist Slovakia — and ensured that Kočner’s participation would draw comparatively little notice.

On Aug. 31, 1995, the president’s son was kidnapped — reportedly by Slovak security services — driven across the border into Austria, and left in front of a police station, stuffed in the trunk of a car. The heist, some Slovakian journalists speculated, had been ordered by then-Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar, a fierce political opponent of the president. Mečiar denied that the security agency, which were believed to be linked to him, were involved.

Austrian authorities reportedly declined to extradite the younger Kováč to Germany, and he was soon back in Bratislava.

None of those involved faced legal sanction. In July 1996, President Kováč granted amnesty to Kočner and another suspect in the Technopol case. He later did the same for his son, and the investigation in Germany was also closed, according to the Slovak Spectator.

Kočner’s World

The TV Takeover (1998)

Kočner emerged in the public eye in 1998, when he went after Slovakia’s first private television channel.

TV Markíza building, source: Wikipedia

The station, TV Markiza, had grown popular not only because it aired soap operas and Hollywood films, but also because it openly opposed Prime Minister Mečiar’s unpopular and increasingly autocratic government.

Under murky circumstances, Kočner managed to obtain a financial claim against the station. On Aug. 18, 1998, in the middle of a broadcast, the businessman showed up with a squad of private guards (some with alleged mafia connections) to physically take control of the building.

The scene unfolded just weeks before a parliamentary election, leading some to assume that Kočner had been dispatched by then Prime Minister Mečiar. A large crowd gathered near the building in northern Bratislava, determined to defend their favorite channel.

In fact, Mečiar has never been conclusively linked to the incident.

Kočner’s claim enabled him to argue successfully in court that he should be granted an ownership share of the station. Two years later, he reached an agreement with the other TV Markiza shareholders to sell them his shares. The exact amount he received was never made public.

The Mafia Lists (2005, 2011)

Kočner’s name appeared on two so-called “mafia lists,” a set of internal police files leaked to the press in 2005 and 2011. While the first document listed him merely as the owner of two expensive cars, the second included him among a number of people suspected of involvement in organized crime. The lists, police later said, had been intended as an aid to officers investigating the mafia. Kočner has denied the authenticity of these lists.

One of Kočner´s hotels in the ski resort Donovaly, source: booking.com

Donovaly (2008)

The Donovaly case, involving a well-known Slovakian ski resort not far from Kočner’s hometown, was thoroughly covered by Kuciak in his investigative reporting. The resort is known as a meeting place for many of Slovakia’s elites. Unsurprisingly, Kočner left his mark there. He has owned several apartments and a small hotel in the resort and later built a luxurious new hotel, the Residence Hotel & Club.

The National Criminal Agency (NAKA) accused Kočner of tax fraud in the case, alleging that he used these hotels to obtain millions of euros through a fraudulent tax return by reselling them repeatedly to his own shell companies.

In his reporting, Kuciak found numerous procedural mistakes made by a NAKA investigator during the agency’s probe into the matter. The investigator was later removed from the case, which was reopened in August 2017 thanks to Kuciak’s reporting. The investigator was later called before a disciplinary committee and left the police force.

Dobroslav Trnka, the former general prosecutor, credit: Branislav Wáclav / Aktuality.sk

Glance House (2010)

Glance House is a partially completed apartment building in Bernolákovo, a village outside Bratislava, over which a lawsuit erupted in 2010.

As reported by [business publication Trend.sk, one of the two owners of the property accused the other of defrauding her. Because of the ongoing case, the Prosecutor’s Office froze any further action on the property, preventing tenants who had already paid their deposits from moving in.

Despite the block, Dobroslav Trnka, Slovakia’s prosecutor general at the time and a Kočner ally (see below), reportedly allowed the land on which the building stood to be transferred to firms affiliated with Kočner, under unclear circumstances. To this day, none of the buyers of apartments in the building have been able to gain access to their property.

The Welten golf course near the town of Báč, source: www.golfove-cesty.cz

The Welten Golf Course (2011)

The Welten golf course near the town of Báč, just outside Bratislava, was among Kočner’s frequent meeting spots. According to witness testimony, this was where he met with one of his most loyal associates to hand over the money to pay Kuciak’s murderer and his accomplice.

Kočner has been charged for illegally wresting ownership of both the course and the company that controlled it from its owner in 2011 through a complicated mechanism involving a debt obligation he had obtained.

The criminal case is ongoing.

Initially, Kočner denied owning the property, only to reveal later that he planned to invest millions into its development.

The Second Technopol Case (2017)

The second Technopol case, which is not connected to the earlier scandal from the ‘90s, was revealed to the public by Kuciak’s reporting just a year before his murder.

The case began with a marriage gone wrong. Denisa Pávková, Technopol’s board chairman, went behind the back of her estranged husband, the company’s owner, to sign away its shares and many of its valuable assets. She has been charged in the matter, and the case is ongoing.

According to data obtained by OCCRP from the police investigation, Kočner was in touch with Pávková at the time and was helping coordinate her legal strategy.

At least some of the assets stolen from the company reportedly ended up in the hands of Kočner’s allies. Moreover, shortly after the asset theft, Technopol paid half a million euros into Kočner’s personal account, according to multiple outlets.

Pavol Rusko and Marian Kočner, credit: Branislav Wáclav / Aktuality.sk

The Markiza Promissory Notes (2017 – today)

The so-called “second TV Markiza case” was related to Kočner’s earlier claim against the station. Nearly 20 years after the previous settlement, Kočner made a new claim: that he possessed four promissory notes worth nearly 70 million euros allegedly signed by the station’s former owner, Pavol Rusko. Now Kočner was demanding payment. However, according to testimony from expert witnesses in a subsequent court case, the notes were forgeries.

It was on the basis of this case that Kočner was arrested and detained in 2018, as the Kuciak murder investigation was gaining steam. Both Kočner and Rusko face up to 19 years in prison for financial fraud and obstruction of justice. The Special Criminal Court sentenced them at the end of February 2020.

Five Star Residence/VAT fraud (2011)

As reported by multiple Slovakian media outlets, police investigators found in 2018 that 17 flats in an elite downtown Bratislava building, the Five Star Residence, had been sold by one Kočner company to another for just one euro seven years earlier. The businessman allegedly used this transaction to file a fraudulent VAT refund claim on the sale. Kočner was not formally charged in the case, which Kuciak reported onm until after the journalist’s murder.

 

By Pavla Holcová and Arpád Soltész (ICJK)
with contributions from Eva Kubániová and Marek Martinovský

Graphics by Lenka Matoušková