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Greece In Tax Evasion Probe Of Ex-Chancellor

(c) Sky News 2013

Greece's parliament has voted to launch a criminal investigation into allegations that a former finance minister mishandled a list of suspected tax cheats, erasing the names of three of his relatives.

The 265 to 6 vote to probe George Papaconstantinou came at the end of a heated 14-hour parliamentary debate that finished late on Thursday.

Three other politicians, including two former prime ministers, were spared scrutiny after the majority of the country's 300-member parliament voted down proposals to investigate potential involvement in the tax scandal.

Socialist politician Mr Papaconstantinou was at the helm of the country's finance ministry three years ago.

On December 28, he was accused of masking the names of three of his relatives from a list of wealthy Greeks with more than $2bn (£1.25bn) in savings deposited in an HSBC (LSE: HSBA.L - news) bank in Geneva, Switzerland.

Mr Papaconstantinou became the country's most unpopular politician after negotiating Greece's first international bailout and enforcing a first wave of brutal budget cuts and tax hikes.

The bank account holders include his cousin, blue chip corporate lawyer Eleni Papaconstantinou, whose joint account with her husband holds $1.2m (£750,000). Also implicated was Ms Papaconstantinou's sister's spouse, who is an arms dealer. All have denied wrongdoing.

Mr Papaconstantinou has also denied the charges, arguing that he never knew his relatives were among the list of contentious tax cheats and that he never deleted their names from a compact disc.

He received the CD in 2010 from his then French counterpart, Christine Lagarde, who is now head of the International Monetary Fund.

However Mr Papaconstantinou subsequently conceded that he lost the CD after making a copy he later provided to the head of the financial police to pursue.

He was expelled from the socialist Pasok party last month, but was to testify before parliament on Thursday, together with his replacement Evangelos Venizelos, the then prime minister George Papandreou and his successor Lucas Papademos.

All were originally implicated for allegedly covering up the worst tax scandal in decades.

With Greece's financial crisis deepening nearly four years since it erupted and Greeks still reeling from continued austerity, the allegations have stoked further public distrust of elites and the political system.

Neither the two administrations that followed the Papandreou government, nor the brief government led by technocrat Lucas Papademos last year, failed to expose alleged billionaire tax cheats.

No one on the Lagarde list has been charged, let alone investigated.

"The rest of the world has largely ignored this latest twist of the plot in Greece," Megan Greene, a leading economist at Roubini Global Economics, said.

"Not only does (the scandal) demonstrate the kind of institutional failure that has landed the country in so much trouble, but it could also mark the beginning of the end for the current coalition government - and possibly for Greece's euro-area membership, as well."