Greek coalition party expels MPs over tax cheat list

ATHENS Mon Jan 7, 2013 11:22pm GMT

Greece's former Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos listens to a question during a news conference in Athens in this March 9, 2012 file picture. REUTERS/Yiorgos Karahalis/Files

Greece's former Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos listens to a question during a news conference in Athens in this March 9, 2012 file picture.

Credit: Reuters/Yiorgos Karahalis/Files

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ATHENS (Reuters) - The smallest party in Greece's government expelled two lawmakers on Monday for backing an investigation into a ruling party leader over his handling of a list of possible tax cheats, cutting the fragile coalition's majority in parliament.

Democratic Left lawmakers Odysseas Voudouris and Paris Moutsinas supported a call by the main opposition Syriza party to look into Socialist leader Evangelos Venizelos's role in a scandal over the so-called "Lagarde list" that names rich Greeks who stashed money abroad.

"What is now clear is that the two deputies not only express a different opinion but also support a different political plan," the party said in a statement confirming their expulsion from its parliamentary group.

The expulsions left the ruling coalition with 164 lawmakers in the 300-seat parliament.

The Lagarde list - and the failure of successive governments to investigate those named on it - has provoked outrage among austerity-hit Greeks furious that authorities have done little to crack down on tax evasion by the wealthy elite.

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras's government has rejected calls to look into accusations that Venizelos - a former finance minister who heads the PASOK party - has not done enough to pursue the alleged tax cheats.

The government has instead focused on the role of Venizelos's predecessor at the finance ministry, George Papaconstantinou.

Syriza submitted to parliament on Monday its proposal over the set-up of a parliamentary committee that will investigate both former finance ministers.

The government last month backed an investigation into Papaconstantinou after prosecutors found names of his relatives were deleted from the list when he was in office. Papaconstantinou has denied any wrongdoing.

He appeared on TV late on Monday to defend himself, saying the parliamentary committee's investigation would give him a chance to prove his innocence.

"I only want to clear my name," Papaconstantinou told state television NET. "I'm ready to do whatever it takes to prove what I have and haven't done ... We must shed light on this case."

The list, originally obtained by French authorities in 2010, contains 2,062 account holders with about 2 billion euros of deposits at global bank HSBC in Switzerland.

The Greek government obtained the list from French authorities in 2010, but little was heard of it until officials revealed its existence late last year.

It was then published by a Greek magazine, whose editor was immediately arrested and then acquitted of charges of violating privacy laws.

The list, named after IMF chief Christine Lagarde who was French finance minister at the time, has become a symbol of both the tax evasion partly blamed for pushing Greece to a financial crisis and the reluctance of authorities to go after evaders.

(Reporting by Renee Maltezou and Lefteris Papadimas; Writing by Deepa Babington; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

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