Rich Czech finance minister shifts businesses to trust funds to heed new law

PRAGUE, Feb 3 (Reuters) - Czech billionaire Finance Minister Andrej Babis said on Friday he had transferred his assets into two trust funds to comply with a new conflict-of-interest law that he has criticised for being aimed at him.

Worth $2.7 billion, Babis is listed number two on the Forbes list of the richest Czechs and has been likened by local media to U.S. President Donald Trump or former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Babis owns more than 250 companies spanning food, chemicals and media. He also founded the ANO party now leading in polls before an October election, putting the businessman in a strong position to become the country’s next prime minister.

The law, which cleared a final parliamentary vote in January, bans ownership of media for ministers and prevents companies in which ministers hold more then 25 percent from winning public contracts and discretionary subsidies.

“I went to a notary this week and I founded two trust funds and this morning I signed it,” Babis told public Czech Television. “So I got rid of (my company) shares. I am not a shareholder. I complied with the law.”

On the advice of his lawyers, he said, he put 90 percent of his Agrofert holding group and 100 percent of Synbiol, which controls his Hartenberg investment vehicle, into one of the funds. The other Agrofert shares would go into a second fund.

As his family and associates will be involved in the trust funds, Babis’ political opponents viewed the procedure as rather a formality, saying he would maintain ultimate control over Agrofert. Babis dismissed that suggestion.

His holdings include companies that receive development subsidies and public orders, along with two national newspapers and a radio station.

Babis repeated his accusation on Friday that the conflict-of-interest law was meant to drive him out of politics and that it was unconstitutional.

President Milos Zeman has supported Babis and he said earlier this week that he would challenge the new law at the Constitutional Court. Zeman vetoed the bill but lawmakers including from other government parties later overrode him.

Reporting by Robert Muller; editing by Mark Heinrich