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Greece's top statistician under fire over debt numbers

A sign playing on the Greek acronym of dominant electricity producer Public Power Corporation reads 'I can't pay additional taxes and the property levy,' in central Veria, northern Greece, on Friday, Nov. 18, 2011. As two years of pay cuts and tax hikes pummel living standards in debt-crippled Greece, many in this northern town can't pay for basic utilities such as electricity - and get cut off from the grid.

Nikolas Giakoumidis/AP/Nikolas Giakoumidis/AP

When the Greek parliament named Andreas Georgiou president of the country's new Hellenic Statistical Authority, he seemed like the perfect person to revamp the country's much maligned statistics agency.

A Greek national, Mr. Georgiou had spent two decades at the International Monetary Fund and ran its statistics department. He'd also taught economics at the University of Michigan, had a PhD in the subject, spoke five languages and even wrote a book about martial arts.

But now, just over a year into his post, Mr. Georgiou is at the centre of a bizarre series of criminal investigations. The probes focus on allegations he and the agency, known as Elstat, betrayed the country's national interest by cooking Greece's debt figures in order to justify government austerity measures and to satisfy European Union officials.

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Mr. Georgiou has vigorously denied the claims, made by Elstat officials. "These allegations have absolutely no basis," he recently told a parliamentary committee.

The strange saga began in 2009 when the newly elected Socialist government revised the country's budget deficit to about 12 per cent of gross domestic product, double the previous government's figure. The figure kept climbing after Elstat was created in June, 2010, as part of a euro zone aid package. The EU had long complained that Greece's system of producing deficit figures had been tainted by political interference and the new agency was supposed to be independent.

Under Mr. Georgiou's leadership of Elstat, the deficit number jumped from 13.4 per cent of GDP to 15.4 per cent. That put Greece in far worse financial shape than any other euro zone country and it sparked much of the European debt problem that is still unfolding. It also prompted Greece to seek a €110-billion ($152-billion) bailout in 2010.

Two months ago Mr. Georgiou came under attack from officials at Elstat. Two of the agency's three outside directors quit and the third, Zoe Georganta, told reporters that "the 2009 deficit was artificially inflated to show that the country had the biggest fiscal shortfall in all of Europe, even higher than Ireland's which was 14 per cent." She added that German officials at Eurostat, the European Union's statistical agency, had pressured the Greek government to inflate the 2009 deficit to justify harsh austerity. One other former director complained that Mr. Georgiou kowtowed to EU officials and refused to listen to any dissenting views. Then an Elstat vice-president, Nikos Logothetis, outlined similar allegations in a memo to prosecutors who started an investigation.

Mr. Georgiou shot back. He defended his work as completely consistent with European Union regulations and he accused Mr. Logothetis of hacking into his e-mail, which has led to another criminal investigation.

The government backed up Mr. Georgiou, and in an extraordinary move introduced legislation last month to replace the entire Elstat board, except for Mr. Georgiou. "Unfortunately, at a level of interpersonal relations and functions, a problem has emerged," Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos told reporters at the time.

The scandal has now moved to the Greek parliament, where a committee has called all of the players to testify. Prosecutors have also started questioning the former directors and are expected to interview Mr. Georgiou next month.

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Mr. Georgiou has remained unbowed. "We would like to be a good, boring institution doing its job," he told the Financial Times in a recent interview. "Unfortunately, in Greece statistics is a combat sport."

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