Czech Party Seeks Probe on Leaks Linked to Billionaire Minister

The Czech Republic’s top ruling party called for a probe into suspected leaks of police files to media controlled by billionaire Finance Minister Andrej Babis, deepening a crisis that could torpedo the government.

Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka’s Social Democrat party called for lawmakers to investigate a recording that surfaced this week in which Babis allegedly discussed information leaked from police and their publishing it in newspapers he controls to discredit his rivals. Babis denied all wrongdoing, calling the initiative a “perfectly timed, totally manipulated political campaign” that is taking place in the runup to October general elections.

“If it’s true that the leaks exist, they must be investigated,” Interior Minister Milan Chovanec, deputy chairman of the Social Democrats, told journalists on Wednesday after a parliament debate. He warned that leaks from police files veered into the territory of criminal activity. “We want a parliamentary committee to formally look into this.”

The accusations add to a litany of complaints from the Social Democrats and opposition parties that Babis is entangled in conflicts of interest tied to his ownership of the country’s two largest newspapers and its biggest food supplier. While animosity between the coalition partners has grown before the elections, Babis’s ANO party is widening its lead in opinion polls.

The coalition’s slow disintegration, which began after the passage of a bill that bans cabinet members from owning media, gained speed last week when Sobotka tried to dismiss the billionaire from his ministerial post. Sobotka accused Babis of financial “tricks” when building his chemical business empire. The billionaire has rejected the allegations.

President Milos Zeman, who has sided with Babis in coalition disputes, has so far refused to dismiss the minister, sparking outcry from top politicians who claim he is violating the constitution. Babis himself said he will not step down voluntarily.

Bickering between coalition partners is a common occurrence in the European Union country of 10.6 million people, which has seen nine cabinets in the last 15 years, none of which has served a full-year term. Still, the three parties in the ruling coalition, which also includes the Christian Democrats, said they want to keep the coalition together and don’t want to proceed to early elections.

Babis has a fortune of more than $3 billion, according to Forbes. After his coalition partners teamed up with opposition in the parliament to hammer through the conflict-of-interest bill, he transferred his empire of 250 companies spanning 18 countries and employing 34,000 people to a trust earlier this year.

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