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FHB investigations said to target publisher who leads bank

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The editor of index.hu yesterday addressed the claims that the authorities are pursuing cases against FHB mortgage bank because the chairman of FHB’s board also owns several media outlets.

FHB mortgage bank said Friday it is planning to appeal a HUF 105 million fine levied Tuesday by the National Bank of Hungary (MNB) against the lender. The fine was levied on charges of violating rules prohibiting illegal market manipulation, and a police investigation of the bank has begun, according to reports.

Gergely Dudás, editor-in-chief of index.hu, acknowledged in an opinion article posted yesterday that there is speculation suggesting that the primary target of the FHB bank investigation is bank chairman Zoltán Spéder, who also owns index.hu and several other media outlets. Some of those outlets are currently facing tax investigations.

Dudás said it is possible that the case against FHB is meant to pressure Spéderʼs media company, or even make him give it up, hvg.hu reported.

But, Dudás also said that index.hu is trying to avoid fighting the political battles that Spéder is facing.

FHB said in a statement posted on the website of the Budapest Stock Exchange (BSE) on Friday, that in the past days, numerous attacks have targeted both FHB Group and the chairman of the board of directors of FHB Mortgage Bank, according to Hungarian news agency MTI.

“FHB Group, as before, will not address articles and comments containing such speculation, accusations and rumours,” the statement said. “FHB Group has always operated legally, in accordance with regulations, prudently and under the constant supervision of the MNB.”

Media company

Bank Chairman Spéder owns Central European Media & Publishing (CEMP) Zrt., which is the publisher of Index.hu, portfolio.hu, napi.hu and InfoRádió. Those media outlets have often been critical of the government, although their coverage generally seems politically neutral.

Hungaryʼs National Tax and Customs Authority (NAV) has been investigating the media company since the beginning of May, online news daily 444.hu reported on Friday. Editorial staff of index.hu asked by 444.hu said they had not met any NAV investigators in the editorial offices.

Commenting on why the portal had scant coverage of Spéderʼs affairs, the index.hu editor-in-chief wrote yesterday that there are “no good ways for an editorial staff to preserve professional integrity and independence in cases related to the owner or the publisher”. Dudás added he could imagine that “the independent and critical coverage of the government was a thorn in the eye for more people”, which possibly made things worse for Spéder, Hungarian online daily hvg.hu reported. 

In its statement Friday, the bank stressed that FHB Group has always observed and always will observe disclosure rules and inform its clients and investors in a proper manner, MTI reported.

The bank is facing a police probe and has come under the scrutiny of investigators, government spokesperson Zoltán Kovács said on Friday, confirming news reports. Kovács said the probe is in its early stages, thus nothing can be said about it at present. It is the task of investigators to weigh questions related to the integration of Hungaryʼs savings cooperatives, he said.

FHB Mortgage Bank said it had been informed by the police that an investigation against an unknown perpetrator had been launched, and the FHB Group had been contacted concerning the matter, MTI reported. The management of FHB Group is ready to cooperate fully with the police, the announcement by the lender said.

Recent legislation on savings cooperatives has significantly changed the legal environment for FHB Group, but the position of FHB Mortgage Bank has only been affected slightly, as MNB has already exercised oversight over members of FHB Group since their accession to the savings cooperative integration, the bank said, according to MTI.

MNB fined FHB Mortgage Bank HUF 105 million on charges of violating the rules on the prohibition of illegal market manipulation on June 7.

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