BUSINESS

Greek authorities publish list of more than 4,000 alleged top tax evaders

01/23/2012 01:29 EST | Updated 03/24/2012 05:12 EDT
ATHENS, Greece - Debt-crippled Greece has named some 4,000 alleged tax dodgers, including a former media magnate and a prominent entertainer, with the worst offender owing the state nearly €1 billion ($1.3 billion).

But much of that money might never be reclaimed, as some of the top offenders are in prison or their companies are bankrupt.

The list published by the Finance Ministry late Sunday is part of a campaign to crack down on rampant tax evasion, which — coupled with inefficient tax collection — is hampering the recession-hit eurozone member's painful efforts to avoid bankruptcy.

At the top of the list was a 58-year-old accountant, currently serving terms of more than 100 years in prison for tax fraud, who allegedly owes some €950 million. Most of that sum, however, is in surcharges and fines.

At least another three people convicted over the same scam figure high on the list, which includes debts of more than €170,000 ($221,000).

But ministry officials acknowledged that it would be extremely hard to collect many of the outstanding debts — which total nearly €15 billion ($19.5 billion).

"The truth is that these lists contain debtors who in some cases have owed the money for a long period of time, so after a certain point one does not expect to be able to collect the debts," finance ministry official Haris Theocharis said Monday.

"But I'm sure that there are possibilities ... In some cases (publication) will push debtors to settle their debts, and tax offices to redouble their efforts," Theocharis, who is head of the ministry's general secretariat of information systems that compiled the list, told the Associated Press.

Theocharis argued that the list could also dispel popular misconceptions on the recovery prospects for such debts.

"When more than a year ago the finance minister of the day tried to table legislation to cancel some of these debts that were considered impossible to reclaim, there was a public outcry," he said.

"People say, 'oh there's €41 billion in outstanding (tax) debts, and if we reclaim that sum then we won't have any problems,'" he said. "This kind of talk has no meaning."

Despite repeated pledges over the past two years, Greek officials have failed to make progress in collecting outstanding debts, which the European Commission task force for Greece calculates at about €60 billion ($78 billion) — little more than a tenth of which is seen as collectible.

The country's annual gross domestic product is about €218 billion, while the 2011 budget deficit is expected to be around €19.7 billion.

The government has acknowledged the grave shortcomings of its tax service, even admitting that a hugely unpopular new property tax under which nonpaying households will have their electricity cut off might not have been imposed if the tax collection system were more efficient.