Poland’s health minister has come under fire this week over revelations that a company owned by his brother has received 140 million zloty in grants since the current government came to power. Opposition MPs claim that the firm received “preferential treatment”.

It has also emerged that the minister transferred shares he owned in his brother’s companies to his wife, thereby avoiding having to declare them. Meanwhile, further concerns have been raised over defective or allegedly overpriced equipment purchased by the health ministry.

The minister, Łukasz Szumowski, has denied accusations of wrongdoing, calling them “ridiculous” and “political”. He also says that in former times he would have given one opposition MP a “punch in the face” for insulting his wife.

Cabinet colleagues have come to Szumowski’s defence, praising the work he has done amid difficult circumstances during the coronavirus crisis. They also point out that the amount of public money granted to his brother’s firm was actually higher under the previous government.

“Preferential treatment”?

The main claims relate to OncoArendi, a biotech company owned by Marcin Szumowski, the minister’s brother. Earlier this week, opposition MPs reported that, since 2015, when the current Law and Justice (PiS) party, came to power, the firm has received over 140 million zloty in grants from the National Centre for Research and Development (NCBR), a state agency.

During much of that period, Łukasz Szumowski has served in the government: first, as a deputy minister for science and higher education from November 2016, and then as health minister from January 2018.

An opposition MP, Dariusz Joński, claims that it is “crystal clear that the company enjoyed preferential treatment and could count on privileges”. He and his colleagues revealed that OncoArendi is the subject of an ongoing investigation by the national prosecutor’s office.

They also noted that an investigation in 2017 by the Central Anticorruption Bureau showed deficiencies in the process of awarding grants by the NCBR. This included a “lack of impartiality and avoidance of conflicts of interest”, meaning there was no “guarantee [of] objective assessment of applications”, reports TVN24.

The audit specifically mentioned Marcin Szumowski as “the most extreme example” of these problems, pointing to the fact that he had been part of a panel assessing applications and at the same time an applicant that was being assessed by the panel. Szumowski denies this, saying he has “never assessed my own applications”.

The head of the science and education ministry during Szumowski’s time there, Jarosław Gowin, came to the defence of his former subordinate, saying that Szumowski had from the beginning been completely transparent about his brother’s business.

“Due to a potential conflict of interest, Szumowski NEVER undertook any activities related to awarding grants by the NCBR”, tweeted Gowin, who is leader of  one of the three parties that make up Poland’s ruling coalition. However, Gazeta Wyborcza, a leading daily, claims that Łukasz Szumowski was supervising officials who awarded NCBR grants to his brother’s company.

Marcin Szumowski also responded to the allegations in an interview with Dziennik Gazeta PrawnaHe claimed that his firm had actually received more grant money (108 million zloty) in the four years before Szumowski entered government than in the same period since (74 million zloty). Moreover, of the former amount, 84 million had been granted when the current opposition were in power.

Asset declarations

Gazeta Wyborcza has also raised questions about Łukasz Szumowski’s asset declarations. In his most recent statement, the minister declared having only 1,134 zloty of savings, a figure that has significantly declined from earlier declarations.

The newspaper noted that, before entering government, Szumowski had owned shared in a number of companies, including two founded by his brother. But, says Wyborcza, Szumowski sold those shares to his wife, whose property is held separately from his, meaning it does not need to be declared by him.

“However, there are no signs of money from the disposal of shares in the minister’s asset declarations,” writes Wyborcza. “And these are large amounts. The biggest – 4.4 million zloty – came from the sale of shares in Vestera, which [Szumowski] ran with his brother.”

The newspaper also notes that “a month after Vestera was sold, the firm that bought it was liquidated. What happened to Vestera’s property? It is not known.”

In response, the health ministry issued a statement denying parts of Gazeta Wyborcza’s reporting and asking for corrections, reports TVP Info. The ministry said that Szumowski had not sold his shares on 1 June 2017, as the newspaper claims, but before becoming a minister in November 2016.

The minister himself also explained that his decision to legally separate his and his wife’s property was “nothing unusual” and happened in 2008, long before he entered politics. He explained that: “I took a big loan…[and] I preferred that it would not burden my wife and children…So before taking the loan, I decided to separate my property.”

He also admitted that his wife indirectly part-owns OncoArendi through shares in another company, Szumowski Assets, which he transferred to her before entering government. But he estimates that she only effectively owns around 3% of OncoArendi, reports TVP Info.

Defective and overpriced equipment

Łukasz Szumowski has also faced accusations regarding the purchase of medical equipment during the coronavirus pandemic. Last week, it was discovered that his ministry had spent 5 million zloty on masks from a family friend of Szumowski, with his brother helping facilitate the deal.

The masks then turned out to be defective. Prosecutors are investigating the case at the request of the health ministry and Szumowski denies wrongdoing.

Poland’s health minister denies cronyism after government buys “useless” masks from family friend

This week, Gazeta Wyborcza claimed that the health ministry had purchased 200 million zloty of respirators that cost up to twice as much as others available on the market. The newspaper also notes that the owner of the firm selling the respirators was involved in illegal arms trading in the 1990s.

The ministry has also spent 125 million zloty on coronavirus tests that only have effectiveness of 15-20%, according to Dziennik Gazeta Prawna. Earlier this week, the ministry revealed that protective masks purchased from China, in a deal organised by a state-owned firm and facilitated by President Andrzej Duda, had failed safety tests.

Chinese face masks purchased by Polish state-owned firms fail safety tests

In response to this week’s allegations, Szumowski’s government colleagues have leapt to his defence, arguing that he has done an excellent job amid the most difficult of circumstances.

Poland has one of Europe’s lowest rates of coronavirus infections and deaths. In fact, amid the pandemic the number of deaths recorded overall in Poland has been lower than in recent years.

“Minister Szumowski has significantly contributed to a much better fight against the coronavirus crisis than in many other countries,” said Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki yesterday, noting that “health care has collapsed in the richest countries in the world”.

Szumowski’s efforts to “purchase equipment wherever possible have led to us having a much better situation in health care than countries much richer than us,” added the prime minister. “Szumowski has my full support, but also the full support of Poles, [who] know that he acted in a fast, decisive, radical way in order to protect health.”

During the coronavirus crisis, Szumowski, who was previously not a prominent figure in the government, has risen in polling to become the most trusted politician in the country.

Szumowski has also received support from Jarosław Kaczyński, the ruling party chairman and Poland’s de facto leader. In an interview for the Polish Press Agency, Kaczynski dismissed the accusations against the health minister, saying that Szumowski was never in a position to help his brother’s company while serving in government and that OncoArendi received more substantial support from NCBR under the previous government.

“The accusations against Szumowski are unfair and have no basis in the facts. To the contrary: they openly contradict the facts,” said Kaczyński. “This is an attack on a man who has become an icon of effectively combating coronavirus…Szumowski has done a lot of good for Poland during this difficult time.”

Szumowski himself declares that he is “ready to testify” in any investigation into the defective masks, saying that in fact he and the health ministry “are the victims in this case”, reports Money.pl.

He also responded angrily to opposition claims of corruption, and in particular for making accusations against his wife. “If these were the old days, I’d give Sławomir Nitras [an opposition MP] a punch in the face,” said Szumowski, quoted by TVP. “He is a rude and uncultured man, a waste of time and energy”.

Main image credit: Adam Guz/KPRM/Flickr (under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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