VILNIUS - Allegations of corruption among senior officials took on an even greater dimension this week when it was announced that Vilnius Mayor Arturas Zuokas, one of the country?s most high-profile political figures, has become the subject of a pretrial criminal investigation.
The Special Investigation Service confirmed that it transferred investigation materials to the office of the Vilnius district prosecutor on July 22.
While both the SIS and the prosecutor's office refused to share any details of the case, officials have stated that cooperation between the two agencies has continued in an inquiry that could eventually lead to criminal charges being pressed against Zuokas.
Citing anonymous sources, the daily Respublika reported on July 24 that Zuokas was suspected of consorting with businessmen from Rubicon Group, the corporation charged with bribing three MPs to influence legislation .
According to the paper, the SIS wiretapped Zuokas' conversations with Rubicon CEO Andrius Janukonis while the two discussed bribing Vilnius City Council member Vilmantas Drema to vote for Zuokas in mayoral elections.
Drema played a crucial role in last year's controversial selection process of Vilnius' mayor after his sudden disappearance from a city council meeting resulted in the election of Gediminas Pavirzis, his social democrat challenger. It was later announced that Drema had been admitted to the hospital with a serious medical condition the night before the vote.
When Zuokas challenged the results of the election, Drema retracted his support from the mayor and voted in subsequent city council polls for Pavirzis, whom Zuokas eventually defeated after a protracted and bitter political and legal struggle that left the Lithuanian capital without a mayor for months.
With the country's anti-corruption agencies moving against him, Zuokas denied the charges in an interview with Lithuanian Radio on July 27, branding the case as "politicized."
Earlier this year, Zuokas accused Respublika's publishers of blackmailing businesses into placing advertisements, and members of Zuokas' Liberal and Centrist Union Party have publicly mused that the SIS maintains a political agenda against their party.
Drema insisted that he was not approached to accept a bribe, neither by Zuokas nor by representatives of Rubicon Group."I was never offered any kind of compensation, and there was never any kind of pressure-psychological or otherwise-placed on me to vote for one or another candidate. I've never told any journalists that I was offered a bribe," Drema told The Baltic Times.
While SIS officers questioned him as a witness in the case, Drema denied being subject to any form of external influence. Nor did he appear to bear any ill will toward Zuokas or the mayor's party.
"I think Mayor Zuokas is a competent, hard-working mayor who has done a lot for the city. Maybe some of my actions have damaged my relationship with him, but that does not affect my desire to work with him," he said.
While bound by privacy laws not to divulge the specifics of the case, the SIS did not deny that its investigation into Zuokas was related to its parliamentary corruption inquiry.
"One investigation uncovered themes that were then traced in other investigations. This case is one of those other investigations," said Elena Martinoniene, press representative for the SIS, adding that prosecutors would complete the investigation's final stages.
The Vilnius District Prosecutor's Office refused to comment on the case.
Recent investigations have dogged Zuokas. When the SIS last month raided several party headquarters, including Zuokas', as part of an investigation into parliamentary corruption, the Vilnius mayor fled to Poland in fear of retribution. Only when the situation simmered did he return to Lithuania.
Zuokas is currently serving his second term as mayor. The Liberal and Centrist Union, which sits in opposition in the Seimas (Lithuania's parliament), was the only political party that openly supported President Valdas Adamkus in June's presidential elections.