Europe
3:00 pm
Wed December 7, 2011

The Latest Greek Drama: Government Statistics

Originally published on Tue February 7, 2012 3:31 pm

Greece fudged its budget numbers to enter the euro club, and its reputation as a source of accurate financial figures never really improved. As the country's financial crisis has worsened, the joke about its suspect fiscal numbers comes with the punch line, "lies, damn lies ... and Greek statistics."

The country sought to improve its standing last year when it created a new and independent statistical service, the Hellenic Statistical Authority.

The respected economist chosen to head it, Andreas Georgiou, has excellent credentials: a doctorate in economics from the University of Michigan and more than two decades at the International Monetary Fund in Washington. He speaks five languages and has a black belt in jiu-jitsu.

"I thought the credibility of the country and its statistics in particular was an extremely important issue. I thought I could contribute in bringing back this credibility in my own little way," Georgiou said.

The Statistical Authority may look like any other office. It's a quiet place where people in suits work at computers and go to meetings. But in the past three months, it's become the stage for a Greek drama.

Georgiou, who initially won kudos in Europe for restoring confidence in Greek data, is now being investigated by Greek prosecutors following a claim that he made the deficit appear worse than it is.

History Of Suspicious Figures

Before his arrival, the Greek budget numbers were suspect because the statistical service was part of the Finance Ministry. And according to economist Yiannis Tsarmougelis, politicians at the ministry pressured the number crunchers.

"There was always the ability of the ministry to affect the deciding body of the statistical service," he said. "And, actually in the past, there was a kind of negotiation between them on what was the level of inflation, and so on and so forth."

To remedy that situation, the socialist government created the statistical authority, made it independent, put Georgiou in charge and created a special advisory board.

But the board clashed with Georgiou. One member faces criminal charges for hacking into his email. And Georgiou says the advisory board acted inappropriately and demanded to vote on data.

"The responsibility for producing the figures lies with the technical staff, led by me, and I have the final responsibility as the chief statistician of the country," he said. "And anyway, I think for most people, I think it would be a little bit absurd to have voting on specific numbers."

After Georgiou's clashes with the board over numbers, the government dismissed most of the members.

Claims That Deficit Was Inflated

One of them shot back. Economics professor Zoe Georganta claimed that the statistical service under Georgiou may have artificially inflated the 2009 deficit. She suspects it was a ruse to justify tough austerity measures on Greeks.

"I don't say that we were [OK] with the statistics all the time. We were not OK," she said. "But we have to find a way to correct it, not to make it worse. We have made everything worse now."

She also suggested that Georgiou was a puppet of the Europeans and his old employer, the IMF.

Her accusations sparked an investigation by the prosecutor for economic crimes.

Georgiou and two others in the statistical authority are being investigated for something called "breach of faith against the state," a crime that can carry a sentence of up to life in prison.

But Georgiou says this investigation is about something bigger.

"This is what's being attacked: it is people doing their job and following the rules ... the European rules," he said.

Georgiou is set to give written testimony on the investigation on Monday. Meanwhile, the EU's central statistical service, Eurostat, is praising him and his employees, and says it does not see any indication that Greece's 2009 budget deficit was artificially inflated.

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Transcript

LYNN NEARY, HOST:

After it became clear that Greece cooked its books to get into the euro club, the Greek government tried to clean up its image. It created in independent statistical agency. To lead it, they appointed a respected economist from the international monetary fund who won kudos in Europe for restoring confidence in Greek data. But now, Greek prosecutors are investigating whether he cooked the books, too, actually making the deficit look worse than it is.

Joanna Kakissis has that story from Athens.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: The Hellenic Statistical Authority looks like any other boring office. It's a quiet place where people in suits work at computers and go to meetings. But in the last three months, it's become the stage for an ugly Greek drama. The very reluctant protagonist is the Authority's president, Andreas Georgiou. He has a doctorate in economics from the University of Michigan. He's shy, but disciplined. He speaks five languages and has a black belt in jiu-jitsu. He worked at the IMF in Washington for 21 years.

He applied for the job to lead a new and independent statistical service in Greece in the spring of 2010. That's when everyone seemed to be joking about lies, damn lies and Greek statistics.

ANDREAS GEORGIOU: I thought the credibility of the country and its statistics in particular was an extremely important issue. I thought I could contribute in bringing back this credibility in my own little way.

KAKISSIS: The Greek budget numbers were suspect because the statistical service was part of the Finance Ministry. And according to economist Yiannis Tsarmougelis, politicians at the ministry pressured the number-crunchers.

YIANNIS TSARMOUGELIS: There was always the ability of the ministry to affect the deciding body of the statistical service. And, actually in the past, there was a kind of negotiation between them on what is the level of inflation, and so on and so forth.

KAKISSIS: To remedy that situation, the socialist government created an independent statistical agency, put Georgiou in charge and created an advisory board to that agency. But the board clashed with Georgiou. One member faces criminal charges for hacking into his email. And Georgiou says the board demanded inappropriately to vote on data.

GEORGIOU: The responsibility for producing the figures lies with the technical staff, led by me, and I have the final responsibility as the chief statistician of the country. And anyway, I think for most people, I think it would be a little bit absurd to have voting on specific numbers.

KAKISSIS: After Georgiou's clashes with the board over numbers, the government dismissed most of the members. One of them shot back with a bombshell. It was economics professor Zoe Georganta. She claims that the statistical service under Georgiou may have artificially inflated the 2009 deficit. She suspects it was a ruse to justify the painful austerity measures on Greeks.

ZOE GEORGANTA: I don't say that we were with the statistics okay all the time. We were not okay, but we had to find a way to correct it, not to make it worse. We have made everything worse now.

KAKISSIS: She suggests that Georgiou is a puppet of the Europeans and his old employer, the IMF. Her accusations sparked an investigation by the prosecutor for economic crimes. Georgiou and two others in the statistical authority are being investigated for something called "breach of faith against the state," a crime that can carry a sentence of up to life in prison. But Georgiou says this investigation goes beyond him.

GEORGIOU: This is what's being attacked. It is people doing their job and following the rules, the European rules.

KAKISSIS: Georgiou is set to give written testimony on the investigation on Monday. Meanwhile, the EU's central statistical service, Eurostat, is praising him and his employees, and refutes all charges that the 2009 budget deficit was artificially inflated. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Athens. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.