BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungary's new anti-fraud body has obtained broad authority to flag suspected corruption, its leader Ferenc Biro said on Wednesday, promising to use all the powers he had at his disposal to maximum effect.
The Integrity Authority, a mainstay of Prime Minister Viktor Orban's commitment to the European Union to obtain billions of euros worth of funding previously suspended over corruption concerns, expects to be fully operational by the end of March.
On Monday, veteran populist Orban secured a last-minute deal to avoid losing the EU cash, helping Hungary avert a severe hit to its currency and bonds, while keeping Budapest under some scrutiny from corruption risks.
International watchdogs say Orban has long channelled EU funds to oligarchs close to his Fidesz party to entrench himself in power. Orban says Hungary is no more corrupt than others.
Non-government organisations have highlighted the fact that the Integrity Authority cannot issue indictments on its own as a key weakness, making it reliant on existing state institutions to co-operate.
Biro, who has two decades' worth of private sector experience in forensic accounting and compliance measures, told Reuters that despite this, his office had substantial powers and the mere fact that it had been established was a step forward.
A requirement to report suspected wrongdoing to EU anti-fraud body OLAF, as well as significant resources provided from the Hungarian budget to recruit up to 150 people, would serve as additional safeguards, Biro said.
"It is important to be clear about what powers the law has granted to this authority. I do not intend to overstep them, however, I plan to use our room for manoeuvre to the maximum extent possible. And this can be considered rather broad."
"We will be equipped with modern weapons, which have thus far not been used in this fight and are effective," Biro said, adding that his office could halt or reboot public procurements and refer cases to local authorities to investigate.
Hungary ranked 73rd in Transparency International's global Corruption Perceptions Index last year, behind neighbouring Croatia and Romania, where local anti-graft authorities exposed several high-level corruption cases over the past years that in Romania's case saw thousands of officials sent to jail.
"As opposed to (Croatia's) USKOK or Romanian prosecutors ... we are not prosecutors ourselves," Biro said. "Nevertheless, we have strong powers in this multi-player set-up. And if we do our job, others will also be compelled to act."
Biro said his office would focus on prevention of wrongdoing helped by a near real-time monitoring system aided by artificial intelligence. However, this will take up to 1-1/2 years to be fully operational, he said.
Stamping out corruption entirely would be unrealistic, Biro said, adding however that the authority could be a good tool to achieve a substantial improvement over the coming years.
"Our number one responsibility will be to ensure that the EU resources which will be forthcoming are spent in a targeted and lawful way to the last cent," he said.
(Additional reporting by Luiza Ilie and Daria Sito-Sucic; Editing by Crispian Balmer)