By Jason Koutsoukis, Athens

The Age- Australia

OF ALL the tawdry corruption cases to make headlines in Greece this year, the story of Babis stands tallest. An employee of the Ministry of Public Works, Babis would spend his working days fossicking around the country’s toll-road booths for discarded receipts. Babis would then pass the receipts on to his superiors, who paid him cash equal to the amounts shown on the receipts, sometimes as much as €800 ($A1120) a day.

His bosses used the receipts to generate bogus travel diaries and then claim generous travel allowances. “This went on for years,” said Leandros Rakintzis, Greece’s General Inspector of Public Administration. “We are still investigating the full extent of this case.” After 38 years as a judge on the bench of the Greek Supreme Court, in 2005 Rakintzis was given the job of eliminating corruption in Greece’s notoriously venal public service.

“Small-time corruption like this is in our DNA,” Rakintzis told The Age this week. From his office four floors below the Australian embassy in central Athens, Rakintzis rattled off a list of corruption cases and public sector mismanagement that helps to explain why Greece is near drowning in debt. Take the government agency Korais, which is located in the ancient city of Thebes, north of Athens. Established in the 1950s to oversee the draining of a lake and the construction of a new road, Korais completed its mission in 1957.

“Today Korais still has a full-time staff of 30 people,” said Rakintzis. “No one knows what they do. Not only that, but every year they advertise for new staff. It has a board, a president, and the president of the board has a full-time driver.” When Greece’s second-largest city Thessaloniki was chosen as the European cultural capital for 1997, the Greek government established an agency to oversee the year’s cultural activities. Yet 13 years later the agency is still in existence and claims still to be finishing off work associated with its original mission. “In Greece this is how politicians have sought to gain favours and generate employment. No government has been prepared to take the risk of doing something about it.”

Greece’s national health system is particularly exposed to corruption and wasted expenditure. Four months ago, Rakintzis sent the public prosecutor’s office recommendations to investigate 34 surgeons from George Gennimatas, the second largest hospital in Athens. In exchange for bribes of up to €5000 each, the surgeons would agree to promote individual patients to the top of the public hospital surgery waiting lists. “They were also saying the operations were for serious medical problems, but they were performing cosmetic surgery procedures,” Rakintzis explained. So Greek taxpayers were footing the bill for operations that would not normally be paid for by the national health system. Each year, Rakintzis estimates, corruption costs the Greek economy about €20 billion.

Recently reappointed by Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou for another five-year term, Rakintzis believes he is starting to make an impact. “Each day we are receiving at least 100 letters from people who are suggesting that we investigate this or that case,” he said. In 2009, Rakintzis and his staff of 30 investigated 950 individual cases, 185 of which have been referred to the public prosecutor’s office. A further 292 offences resulted in disciplinary action. “What we are doing is helping to improve transparency. This is what Greece has to do if we are to solve the problems we face.” Despite the enormity of the task ahead, Rakintzis describes himself as an optimist.

”I think that we are ready to confront this and change our way of life.”