ATHENS — As tough assignments go, rooting out corruption in Greece ranks pretty high on the list.
That hasn’t deterred Heleni Touloupaki. Since taking over Greece’s special prosecutorial body fighting corruption almost a year ago, Touloupaki has given new momentum to a sprawling investigation into Germany’s Siemens for alleged suspicious payments it made in the run-up to the 2004 Olympic Games, spearheaded a probe into bribery allegations against Swiss drugmaker Novartis, and led a team of investigators tasked with identifying high-ranking Greeks, including senior politicians, with links to offshore financial holdings.
Last May, Touloupaki pressed charges against Yiannos Papantoniou, a former defense and finance minister who was found to have more than €3 million in undeclared income in the name of his wife. She also decided to look into the roles played by Proton Bank and Piraeus Bank in helping Greek citizens transfer their wealth out of the country to avoid paying tax.
“We have to rebuild the brand name of Greece. We should all work towards that very seriously,” Touloupaki said in her rudimentary office in the central Athens district of Ampelokipi at the tail-end of 2017.
“We have to rebuild the brand name of Greece. We should all work towards that very seriously” — Heleni Touloupaki
In the first quarter of this year she is expected to bring forward her first charges against officials in the country’s health ministry for bribes they allegedly received from Novartis, according to two officials in Greece’s special prosecutorial body who have been briefed on the case.
Whispering to her assistant to make sure she did not reveal sensitive information, Touloupaki talked about her mission. Large-scale corruption, she said, was not just the result of a broken state but fueled by the very countries that criticized Greece for its poor economic governance when negotiating its three bailouts worth more than €300 billion.
“I have two goals,” she said. “To regain Greece’s assets and take back the moral advantage.”
It won’t be easy.
Her predecessor, Eleni Raikou, quit last March, claiming in a letter to the Supreme Court that she had been “targeted” by “unofficial power centers” over the investigation into Novartis. According to Jens Bastien, an independent economic analyst in Greece, Raikou’s departure was testament to the influence the country’s top brass hold over institutions that are supposed to be independent.
“Eleni Raikou did not receive any political support and claimed that she was being ‘targeted’ while carrying out her investigation,” Bastien said. “The fact that the Greek judicial system loses people like Raikou is serious.”
On Touloupaki, Bastien said: “She is able and qualified.” But he added that “ it is early days in her new position.”
Others in Greece are careful not to assign too much credit to Touloupaki so early on in her role as chief anti-corruption prosecutor. She is “not a pioneer in the business” of going after corrupt officials, said one senior official in Greece’s Public Prosecutor’s Office, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Greece’s special prosecutorial body for anti-corruption was set up by the government in 2011 and quickly saw results. Touloupaki’s predecessors — Raikou and Popi Papandreou — oversaw numerous painstaking investigations, including one that led to the 2013 conviction of former minister Akis Tsochatzopoulos for money laundering. But officials close to Touloupaki say she has brought a greater degree of independence to the office.
In all of her cases, said one judicial official who didn’t want to be named as he was not authorized to speak publicly, Touloupaki has a close and productive relationship with Xeni Demetriou, the Supreme Court’s public prosecutor, providing her with much-needed firepower. Demetriou declined to answer questions about her relationship with Touloupaki for this article.
Former Greek defense minister, Akis Tsochatzopoulos | Angeliki Panagiotou/AFP via Getty Images
Touloupaki spent years working her way up through Greece’s prosecution services, moving from its anti-racism department to its economic crimes unit in the three years prior to landing her current role. A graduate of Greece’s National School of Judges in Thessaloniki, she has one ground rule: not to attract too much attention.
Several times during the interview, she said that under no circumstances should she be made to look like a hero. Instead, she said her role in Greece’s reform process should be inconspicuous in nature.
Touloupaki said her path to leading Greece’s anti-corruption office began in September 2015 when she and three of her colleagues in the prosecution services sat down with Hervé Falciani, the HSBC whistleblower who revealed that tens of thousands of people across the EU had avoided paying billions of euros in taxes using the advice of Swiss bankers.
Touloupaki is using some of what she discovered that day to spearhead her inquiries into how bankers across Europe helped some of Greece’s richest and most powerful citizens channel their wealth into offshore bank accounts.
In so doing she is determined to track down tens of billions of euros in money laundered out of the country prior to the financial crisis.
“I have less than two years available to me in this position,” she said. “I intend to use it wisely.”