Czech police ask parliament to allow prosecution of PM candidate Babis

PRAGUE (Reuters) - Czech police have asked parliament to allow for prosecution of ANO party leader Andrej Babis, the leading candidate to become prime minister in the central European nation after an election in October.

Police have been investigating whether a conference center near Prague, built by a company that Babis owned in the past, may have flouted rules to receive a 50 million crown ($2.25 million) European Union subsidy a decade ago.

Babis, a billionaire businessman whose party is a junior partner in the coalition government, said he had done nothing wrong. “This is the last desperate step by people who want to get rid of me as a politician,” he told Reuters by telephone.

Babis’s ANO party leads opinion polls ahead of the October 20-21 election by a double-digit margin over its nearest rivals.

Parliament speaker Jan Hamacek, a member of the ruling Social Democrats, told Reuters he received a request from Prague economic crime police unit to lift the parliamentary immunity of Babis and his deputy in ANO, Jaroslav Faltynek.

The request will be put to a vote in the full lower house of parliament, possibly in September. If approved, police will be allowed to press charges.

A spokeswoman for the Prague state attorney’s office told Reuters the request was connected to the subsidies for the conference center, Stork Nest. Police declined to comment.

Regardless of whether parliament allows prosecution, Babis can still run in the election for ANO, a protest party he set up in 2011.

ANO, portraying itself as an alternative to graft in parties that have dominated the EU member’s post-communist era, has been increasing its lead despite the Stork Nest and other accusations.

ANO is a junior partner in a three-party coalition led by the center-left Social Democrats. Babis himself left the cabinet in May after a row with Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka over his tax strategies.

With two months left to the election, Pavel Belobradek of coalition partner KDU said he saw no impact on the cabinet.

“Common sense says tells me that this cabinet will finish its term,” he told Czech Television.

Babis told parliament last year Stork Nest, a complex including a hotel and a zoo where Babis invites school trips, was owned by his adult children and his partner’s brother at the time it received the subsidy which was meant for small business.

But firms controlled by Babis -- who is the second richest Czech worth $3.4 billion according to Forbes magazine -- owned it before and after. That is the focus of investigations whether rules were flouted.

The EU’s anti-fraud office OLAF has also been looking into the case.

Babis owned over 200 companies, mainly through a holding called Agrofert, until a conflict of interest law forced him to move them to a trust fund in February. The group has for years received much bigger subsidies for farming and investments than the one under investigation.

($1 = 22.2610 Czech crowns)

Reporting by Robert Muller; Writing by Jan Lopatka, editing by Pritha Sarkar and Alister Doyle