WARSAW — Polish Health Minister Łukasz Szumowski is fighting two battles — one against COVID-19, the other to save his reputation.
Over the last month, Polands opposition and the media have been piling on the cardiac surgeon-turned-politician for allegedly allowing friends and family to enrich themselves thanks to their ties to him.
The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party on Tuesday rejected an opposition effort in parliaments health committee call a non-confidence vote against Szumowski.
But that isnt the end of the governments or Szumowskis troubles. The accusations come at a vulnerable time for the countrys ruling nationalists, for whom Szumowski has become a leading figure since the outbreak of the pandemic in Poland in early March.
Polands incumbent President Andrzej Duda, a staunch ally of PiS, is fighting tooth-and-nail to win a second term. The governments handling of the pandemic and the unfolding economic crisis will affect his chances in the election, likely in late June.
“We will claim every zloty spent for equipment that turned out to be defective” — Polish health ministry
Dudas victory is pivotal for PiS, which wont be able to govern effectively with an opposition president as it doesnt have the votes in parliament to overturn a presidential veto. But Duda has been slipping in recent opinion polls; a survey out last week showed him losing to two opposition candidates in the second round of the election.
Given these stakes, the ruling party has stood firmly behind Szumowski despite an avalanche of reports about dealings by the minister and his family.
The furor began in mid-May, when the opposition-leaning newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza reported that the health ministry spent 5 million złoty (€1.1 million) on 120,000 FFP-2 type face masks and 20,000 surgical masks that were later found not to meet safety standards.
The contract originated from a ski instructor who knew Szumowskis brother, Marcin, a health care businessman. The ministry reportedly paid 39 złoty a mask, while the retail price was 4 złoty at the start of the pandemic. The surgical masks cost 8 złoty a piece, eight times their retail price, the newspaper said.
“We will claim every zloty spent for equipment that turned out to be defective,” the health ministry said in a statement to POLITICO.
The opposition and parts of the media painted the deal as a blatant example of cronyism. Szumowski denied the allegations, saying that all governments were desperate to buy safety equipment, and that he would “have even bought masks from the devil.”
“When someone said they had a product and asked us if we were taking it or not, there was no time to think,” Szumowski said. “Its easy to make accusations now.”
“Back then, everyone was afraid: Will we have equipment or not, will we protect ourselves from the Italian scenario?” he added.
Indeed, counterfeit facemasks and other equipment were a problem across Europe early in the pandemic. In late March, for example, the Netherlands recalled almost half of a batch of 1.3 million masks imported from China.
Separately, a huge transport of Chinese equipment, including masks, was exposed as non-standard in another Polish controversy involving the state-controlled copper and silver miner KGHM, which imported millions of items from China with great government fanfare.
The mask story was only start of Szumowskis problems.
Polish media reported last month that in 2016 and 2017, Szumowski, then a deputy science minister, oversaw granting money from the National Center for Research and Development (NCBR) to OncoArendi Therapeutics, a research company run by his brother. The NCBR reportedly gave the company a total of 300 million złoty in grants.
The ministers wife is an indirect stakeholder in OncoArendi, the media also reported.
Another company linked to the Szumowskis, Life Science Innovation (LSI), was reported to have lost a competition for a 24 million złoty NCBR grant. The company — in which Łukasz Szumowski was a shareholder — appealed the decision, and ended up receiving the money just days after Szumowski was appointed deputy science minister in late 2016.
Dariusz Joński and Michał Szczerba, MPs from Polands Civic Platform opposition party, said they uncovered documents showing that Szumowski was briefly in direct oversight of the NCBR at the time when LSI was applying for the grant. Once again, the ministers wife was revealed as a stakeholder in LSI.
Marcin Szumowski denied doing anything improper, telling the Puls Biznesu newspaper this week that the stories are “untrue” and “insinuations.”
Polish President Andrzej Duda attends an election rally in Warsaw on February 15, 2020 | Omar Marques/Getty Images
“I think that weve become an instrument in a larger political game,” he said.
The health minister also denies all allegations.
“I never oversaw the NCBR,” Szumowski told reporters on May 24. “I am positive that [the allegations] have to do with the election.”
In its statement, the ministry defended Szumowski.
“Minister Szumowski never concealed the fact that his brother was [a businessman] in the biotechnology segment,” it said, adding that Szumowski informed the government about a potential conflict of interest, and that there had been a decision that he “would not supervise and make any decisions regarding the operation of the NCBR.”
Meanwhile, Polands governing party has raced to support the embattled minister.
Szumowski “saved Poland before a cataclysm like we saw in Western Europe,” Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told reporters on Tuesday.
“These are attacks on a man who has becomRead More – Source