Greece publishes tax dodger list to name and shame

ATHENS Mon Jan 23, 2012 9:56am EST

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ATHENS Jan 23 (Reuters) - A famous singer and a retired basketball star were on a list of 4,000 top tax dodgers released by the Greek government as part of a name-and-shame policy to get evaders to pay up.

Tax evasion is endemic in Greece and its international lenders, the EU and the IMF, have insisted Athens improve tax collection if they are to continue bankrolling the debt-laden country.

The list released late on Sunday includes a host of convicted tax frauds and failed businessmen, a prominent singer, the husband of a former government minister as well as a retired basketball star who was recently released from a two-year jail term for illegally owning an arms cache.

Athens has been threatening to publish the list for months and had to change privacy laws to follow through on the threat. It had been kept in a safe in parliament, where lawmakers were allowed to read it without taking notes.

Greek authorities have stepped up the prosecution of tax sinners since Lucas Papademos, a technocrat banker, was named prime minister in November with a mandate to push through budget cuts and economic reforms demanded by the country's lenders.

Police have already detained a string of businessmen for tax arrears and most of them will face trial over the coming months.

Lifting the veil of secrecy that has so far protected tax dodgers will convey a sense of justice to honest taxpayers squeezed by an unprecedented tax onslaught as part of EU/IMF-imposed austerity policies, analysts said.

"It will also protect honest people from doing business with unreliable partners," said Dimitris Mardas, an economics professor at the University of Thessaloniki, Greece's second-biggest city, which was rocked by revelations last week that a top local tax official was part of an extortion racket.

The 4,000 people featured in the list owed Greece about 15 billion euros in total, but publishing it may be largely symbolic. Much of that money cannot be recovered, Mardas said. "Many just can't pay -- some are even owed money by the government itself," he said.

Topping the list with arrears of 952 million euros is a convicted tax fraud who is already serving a 504-year prison sentence for issuing fake receipts to companies that wanted to lower their tax bill.

Greece has about 60 billion euros ($77.52 billion) in unpaid taxes, a figure equivalent to about a quarter of its economy, according to an EU report published in November.

Just 8 billion euros of that amount can be quickly recovered, the EU said, though even that is a sum big enough to cut the country's budget deficit by half.

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