Poland's political leader on unprecedented defensive

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Poland's most powerful politician who has built his position on a reputation of honesty and anti-communist convictions, suddenly finds himself embroiled in revelations over his involvement in complex business dealings and the presence in his inner circle of people with alleged communist ties.

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The stakes are high, given two crucial elections this year — for the European Parliament in May and for the national parliament in the fall.

The scandal broke when Gazeta Wyborcza, a daily newspaper critical of ruling Law and Justice party that Kaczynski leads, published transcripts of secretly recorded business negotiations between Kaczynski and an Austrian developer about plans Kaczynski had to build twin skyscrapers on a plot of land in Warsaw. The plans have been abandoned and the disgruntled developer claims he has not been paid for the work he did.

The plot is owned by a foundation that is linked to the ruling party and Kaczynski sits on its board. The foundation, the Lech Kaczynski Institute, is focused on political debate and is named after Kaczynski's twin brother, Poland's president who was killed in a plane crash in 2010.

Reacting to the scandal, Kaczynski said in an interview that the towers were aimed at making profit and financing the foundation, in line with the law. Commentators say they were also to finance Kaczynski's political circle and the party.

The revelations raise questions because Polish law bans political parties from doing business or drawing profits from it. They also put in doubt the almost ascetic image of integrity Kaczynski has cultivated. The 69-year-old has suddenly been revealed as a shrewd and skilled business negotiator — a far cry from the lifelong bachelor who funds food for stray cats, reportedly had no bank account until a few years ago and is known for saying that "one does not go into politics for money."

In the latest development, Gazeta Wyborcza on Friday quoted testimony that, it said, the Austrian developer, Gerald Birgfellner, recently gave to prosecutors. It quoted Birgfellner as saying that Kaczynski had advised him to give 100,000 zlotys (23,000 euros) to another member of the foundation's council to obtain his permission for the launch of the construction. The paper quoted Birgfellner as saying he delivered an envelope with half of the amount to Kaczynski's office and saw him holding it.

A government member, Jacek Sasin, called the publication "fake news" aimed at "hunting down an honest politician that Jaroslaw Kaczynski is."

Opposition parties, though, are demanding an investigation into the allegations by prosecutors and by the Central Anti-Corruption Bureau that was set up in 2006 by a government that Kaczynski led at the time.

The troubles follow separate allegations of corruption of a party appointee, the head of the State Financial Supervision Authority, and of surprisingly high earnings of aides to the head of the state-owned National Bank of Poland.

"The party that was to be the yardstick of ethics in politics is mixing business with politics like none other," Boguslaw Chrabota, chief editor of the Rzeczpospolita daily, wrote in a recent commentary. He said that the latest scandal amounts to a "serious crisis of image" because it "hits at the party's very heart and brain." He was referring to Kaczynski, who is considered the most powerful person in the country, guiding the government even though formally he is only a lawmaker.

The revelations have exposed Kaczynski as having the decisive voice in the multimillion-euro project to build the skyscrapers, dubbed K-Towers. They also showed Kaczynski as being reluctant to pay Birgfellner for some 14 months of preparatory work on the project that never materialized.

Birgfellner, who is the son-in-law of Kaczynski's first cousin, recorded the talks in Kaczynski's tightly guarded office.

He requested payment of millions of zlotys (hundreds of thousands of euros), but Kaczynski said Birgfellner needed to provide detailed invoices or seek a court order for the payment. The developer felt cheated and notified prosecutors, who questioned him this week.

Gazeta Wyborcza published one of Birgfellner's invoices for almost 1.6 million zlotys (euro 370,000.)

Kaczynski canceled the project last year, telling the Austrian he was fearing it might become a political burden at the time of key elections.

In the recordings, Kaczynski is heard saying he is afraid people might assume that he is the one building the skyscrapers "so I must be a very rich man. We cannot allow that."

In an interview for the pro-government Sieci weekly, Kaczynski insisted that "there is nothing there" to blame him for. He said that "no regulation has been broken" and that a lawmaker and party leader is allowed to sit on a foundation board and hold business negotiations. He argued that there are no financial ties whatsoever between the party and the foundation. He is demanding a public apology from Gazeta Wyborcza and threatening a court case.

It is the first time that Kaczynski and his party, which stormed to power in 2015 elections on a generous social agenda, find themselves on the defensive. Still, the party remains Poland's most popular political force with strong support.

High on the party's agenda is the removal from public life of people who collaborated with communist-era secret security. But media have also revealed that a close Kaczynski associate and former head of the foundation, Kazimierz Kujda, who also negotiated with Birgfellner, was an active collaborator in the 1980s.

Party members reacted with surprise and Kujda resigned.

A spotlight is also on Kaczynski's most trusted head of office, Barbara Skrzypek, who has some shares in a company owned by the Kaczynski foundation. In the late 1980s she worked as a secretary in the office of communist-era Prime Minister Zbigniew Messner, and later in the office of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, when he served as democratic Poland's first president.

In the past, Kaczynski has reacted quickly to nascent scandals, removing officials in cases of wrongdoing, an approach that has helped maintain his upright image.

A prominent party lawmaker, Janusz Sniadek, said party members are taking the media publications "seriously," especially because they come ahead of the elections, but added that they are nothing but "desperate attempts to show Jaroslaw Kaczynski in a bad light, but in fact they became a certificate of his honesty and adherence to the regulations of law."

"The result of Gazeta Wyborcza's publication is the opposite of its intentions," Sniadek told The Associated Press.

Rzeczpospolita chief editor Chrabota said he does not fully agree that the tapes show Kaczynski as an honest person because "in business it is a norm that agreements are signed and work done is paid for, rather than a court trial sought."