PRAGUE (Reuters) - A Prague court on Thursday jailed a former rising star of Czech politics for taking bribes after police caught him with a wine box stuffed with banknotes, in a rare success for the Czech Republic’s drive to crack down on official corruption.
David Rath, a former health minister and regional governor, was sentenced to eight-and-a-half years in prison for taking over $652,000 (£420,050) in bribes for modernisation projects involving European Union subsidies.
Rath, a 49-year-old doctor, said he was innocent and would appeal. He remains free pending the appeal.
“The judgement is at odds with the evidence shown... It ignores witnesses, experts and reality,” Rath told reporters after the ruling. “I will use all the options the legal framework allows” to overturn the ruling.
He is the most prominent senior official to be convicted in a wide anti-graft campaign which two years ago forced then-Prime Minister Petr Necas to step down but has since struggled to turn corruption allegations into criminal convictions.
Rath, who was a senior figure in the Social Democratic party now in power, was arrested in May 2012 after leaving the house of two of his associates - a married couple - carrying 7 million crowns (£183,450) stuffed in a wine box.
The Prague Regional Court ruled that the money, as well as other payments, were bribes he solicited as the governor of the Central Bohemia region for arranging overpriced public contracts for renovating hospitals and other public buildings.
Some of the projects involved development subsidies from the European Union. The subsidies were not paid out once the criminal investigation was launched.
“He committed a crime as a public person with the aim to secure a large benefit,” judge Robert Pacovsky said.
The court also ordered the confiscation of a total of nearly 22 million crowns, including the money uncovered during a search of Rath’s house and at a bank account.
Corruption, mostly involving public tenders, has been a major factor in the sharp drop of public trust in Czech political leaders in recent years, two decades after playwright Vaclav Havel led a bloodless “Velvet Revolution” to overthrow Communist rule.
Both the Social Democrats and the centre-right Civic Democrats, who have ruled for more than half of the time since the 1992 split of Czechoslovakia, have been sullied by scandals.
Necas, the former Civic Democrat prime minister, stepped down in 2013 after a scandal involving police investigation of abuse of power, but that probe has not led to any convictions of senior officials or politicians.
Voters’ anger at graft sparked the rise of billionaire businessman, and now finance minister, Andrej Babis and his ANO party, which has built its appeal on promises to end graft scandals.
Additional reporting by Jiri Skacel; Editing by Clelia Oziel