WARSAW (Reuters) - A Polish news magazine said on Sunday it had obtained a secret recording of a former minister saying the ruling party had settled the debts of a rival candidate in the 2005 presidential election in exchange for his withdrawal from the race.
The report in Wprost magazine was the latest to emerge from a series of mysterious tapes that have tarnished the government's reputation and confronted Prime Minister Donald Tusk with his biggest challenge since taking power in 2007.
Wprost published what it said were excerpts of a secret conversation at a restaurant between Slawomir Nowak, a former infrastructure minister, and Dariusz Zawadka, a former head of military special forces and now deputy head of oil pipelines operator PERN.
According to the transcript published by Wprost on its website, the two men discussed the 2005 presidential election, in which prominent heart surgeon Zbigniew Religa announced he would run but later withdrew and backed Tusk.
"In 2005, I remember, we took over his debts so that he pulled out," Nowak was quoted by Wprost as saying.
Religa's campaign staff had "racked up huge debts", he added. "And he supported Donald, right? It was just because we've paid his debts."
Tusk lost the election in a second round run-off to Lech Kaczynski, who served as president until he died in a plane crash in 2010. Tusk became prime minister in 2007, after his Civic Platform party won a parliamentary election.
In the excerpts published by Wprost, neither of the interlocutors mentions Religa's name, but the magazine said it was him they were discussing.
Reuters tried to reach Nowak for comment by calling a mobile telephone number that he had previously used, and by sending a message to his Twitter account, but without response. Religa died in 2009.
Zawadka said in an email to Reuters he had notified prosecutors that he had been the victim of illegal eavesdropping. He said prosecutors were investigating, and he was unable to comment until those proceedings were concluded.
A spokesman for Warsaw prosecutors confirmed they were investigating.
No-one answered calls on numbers for Civic Platform listed on its Internet site, and the spokesman for its faction in parliament, Pawel Olszewski, did not answer calls to his cellphone. A government spokeswoman declined to comment.
CALLS TO QUIT
Tusk's government is already facing opposition calls to step down after Wprost last weekend published secretly recorded conversations between the central bank chief and the interior minister. They discussed how the central bank - which is supposed to be independent - could help the government avoid electoral defeat.
The central bank governor, Marek Belka, and Interior Minister Bartlomiej Sienkiewicz both say that their remarks were taken out of context, that they broke no law, and they were discussing hypothetical scenarios that did not materialise.
Tusk has called the eavesdropping on officials an attempted coup d'état. It is unclear who might be behind the recordings, or why they are being released now.
So far no-one has disputed the authenticity of any of the recordings. Wprost did not specify when the alleged conversation between Nowak and Zawadka took place.
Nowak, who led Tusk's media campaign in the 2005 elections, stepped down as infrastructure minister last November after prosecutors said they were investigating him over a failure to declare ownership of items including a $6,600 wristwatch. By law, he was required as a minister and member of parliament to declare any property worth more than 10,000 zlotys (1,939 pounds).
Nowak has since been charged over the watch allegations and his trial is now underway. At a court hearing in April, he said he was not guilty as he had not been aware he had to declare personal belongings such as wristwatches.
A government spokeswoman, Malgorzata Kidawa-Blonska, when asked on Sunday about Nowak's reported remarks on the 2005 presidential election and other secretly recorded conversations also published by Wprost on Sunday, said she had no comment for now.
"It's hard to relate to something which is just a few sentences taken out of a conversation. We'll comment probably on Monday or Tuesday after the government's sitting," she said.
(Editing by Christian Lowe, Mark Trevelyan and Eric Walsh)