A suspicious PR consultant and a selfie with Orban

Konrad Szczygieł (FRONTSTORY.PL) 2020-11-02
Konrad Szczygieł (FRONTSTORY.PL) 2020-11-02

Igor Janke, a partner in Polish PR agency R4S has been charged by the prosecutor’s office in a giant financial scandal – journalists of VSquare have found out. Just a few weeks ago, Janke and his R4S partners opened an office in Budapest. Viktor Orban, a friend of Igor Janke, was a special guest at the ceremony.

Thursday, 8 October. Budapest, the luxurious Four Seasons hotel. A small number of guests are gathering in the hotel lobby. Waiting in front of the hotel are Adam Hofman – a former spokesman for Law and Justice (PiS), Robert Pietryszyn – a former PiS activist and former head of a state-owned company Lotos, and Igor Janke – once a right-wing journalist and a PR specialist for many years. The three of them manage R4S, a PR company with a portfolio of big international corporations such as IKEA and Coca-Cola. R4S is a special PR consultancy – its managing partners include people who have a history of working for the current Polish government. 

What are the R4S executives doing in the lobby of the Four Seasons hotel? Hofman, Pietryszyn and Janke are waiting for a special guest of the evening – the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban. 

Quietly pressed charges

As the pro-government media in Budapest rave about the dynamic company from Poland, black clouds gather over one of R4S’s partners. The agency, which is in the business of building its customers’ image and hushing up any events that might put them in a bad light, is now dealing with a serious problem with its own image. As we have unofficially found out, a few days after the Budapest ceremony Igor Janke visited the prosecutor’s office building in Warsaw. There, a prosecutor charged him with exposing GetBack to the loss of half a million zlotys. On leaving the building, he had the status of a suspect.

The allegations against Janke were long kept secret, but Janke has confirmed in an interview with VSquare they have been made. “It was a while ago, I’ll call you back on this,” he cuts off and promises to send his further comments. Could the allegations against Janke made immediately after the opening of the R4S office in Budapest harm the agency’s interests and reputation? “I see no connection,” Janke replies. 

Prosecutor Marcin Saduś, spokesman for the Regional Prosecutor’s Office in Warsaw has told us that Janke has the status of a suspect in a secondary lead of the GetBack investigation: “Due to the ongoing proceedings with respect to this lead, we do not provide information about the findings and decisions of the public prosecutor’s office concerning the aforementioned individual,” adds the spokesman.

International expansion

The ceremony in the luxury Budapest hotel gathers a handful of people, including journalists favourably inclined towards the government, who will praise the Polish-Hungarian business cooperation the following day, quoting the expansion of R4S in the countries of the Visegrád Group as an example. The opening ceremony is covered on the Hungarian prime minister’s Facebook page. In a video from the event, Orban greets the Polish PR consultants warmly, signing a book entitled Forward!, which is his biography (published in English) written by Igor Janke.

Orban gets on a platform and addresses the guests briefly, with an R4S banner in the background. “The V4 must try to grow and thrive together, because if they can, there will be a Central European player in global economy & politics, and an influential Central European player in European politics,” says the Hungarian prime minister. 

A few hours later, R4S partners’ social media are full of their selfies with Orban. A few days later, their photograph with the Hungarian prime minister will make the landing page of the PR agency’s website. “R4S has started an international expansion,” reads a slogan next to the photograph.

R4S is opening its Hungarian branch with great splendour only now, even though the Budapest-registered company R4S Consulting-Hungary was established in August 2020. The company is represented by Michał Wiórkiewicz – a partner in R4S and former head of cabinet of prime minister Jarosław Kaczyński. For its Budapest office, R4S chooses a stately office building in the very heart of the city, a stone’s throw from the parliament building. Despite the general impression of professionalism, some gaffes could not be avoided: R4S’s website looks like it has been made in a hurry, with linguistic errors easy to spot by a Hungarian speaker. 

GetBack and Igor Janke

What is the GetBack scandal about? It is one of the biggest financial scandals in Poland in recent years. It affected almost 10 thousand people and several hundred institutions, who lost more than 3 billion zlotys. 

GetBack was founded in 2012 and debuted on the stock exchange in 2017 as the second biggest debt management company in Poland. Less than a year later, the industry started to suspect that GetBack was in trouble. At the same time, in spring 2018, the head of GetBack – Konrad K. – tried to win support for his business with state-owned banks and financial institutions. 

What does Igor Janke have in common with GetBack? When Janke left journalism, he joined a PR company Bridge in 2013. In 2014, Bridge started providing services to GetBack.  “He came to us like any other customer,” Janke told Gazeta Wyborcza reporters when asked about the start of his cooperation with Konrad K. 

Janke is well-known for his aforementioned book biography of Viktor Orban (Forward! – The Story of Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban). In 2016, when Orban was awarded the Man of the Year title at the Economic Forum in Krynica, the laudatory speech was delivered by Igor Janke: “On 16 June 1989, the young Orbán said that Soviet troops should leave Hungary. At that time, it was a shocking statement. And for the next 26 years, Viktor Orbán kept regularly delivering shocking statements. Young Hungarians told me he would one day become the leader of Hungary. And they were right,” said Janke “Viktor, I hope you continue to be such an inconspicuous forward for many years to come, I hope you fight in politics and you don’t give up.” 

In journalist circles, Janke has been widely regarded as a hagiographer of Kornel Morawiecki, the father of the current prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki. In his book Fortress, the Morawiecki family is depicted as absolutely uncompromising and heroic, with greater services to the struggle for democracy than anyone else.  

Janke has always been open about his contacts with the Morawiecki family and the group in power. For instance, he has published a touching depiction of Mateusz Morawiecki being offered meat dumplings while on travel. It was a Friday, and Morawiecki did not want to sin, so he limited himself to biting off the dough from dumplings, leaving the stuffing on the plate.

Salon24, an online platform owned by Igor Janke’s company

According to Gazeta Wyborcza, Igor Janke allegedly facilitated GetBack’s contacts with the managers of large state-owned companies. GetBack cooperated with an online platform Salon 24, owned by Janke’s company. 

For two years, GetBack was a partner of Janke’s think-tank called the Institute for Freedom. Igor Janke is the co-founder and head of the Institute. 

Igor Janke’s costly invoices

We do not know the official charges brought against Janke by the prosecutor’s office. But we do know what documents were examined by the investigators. Dziennik Gazeta Prawna, which reported on the Get Back scandal right from the start, wrote in 2018: “Two draft contracts with the Institute for Freedom, a think tank co-founded by Janke, worth a total of 5 million zlotys have been made known to the public prosecutor’s office”. In addition, as reported by DGP, a notification to the public prosecutor’s office dated in 2018 mentioned GetBack’s cooperation with Salon24 in 2015–2018.

In 2018, Dziennik Gazeta Prawna revealed the details of GetBack and Salon24’s business cooperation: “GetBack’s current management board are unable to find vouchers for all services provided by Salon24 to the debt collector company. They are also of the opinion that some of the amounts on the invoices are too high and are illegitimate. The company, which runs a blog platform, made more than 850 thousand zlotys gross from the GetBack deal. (…) The invoices are annotated as a partnership of the paper’s business section and an educational action called Personal Finance/Your Money”. Three documents attract particular attention because of their high amounts. Two invoices for 148.83 thousand each, and one for nearly 300 thousand.” 

Interestingly, when things go wrong at GetBack, Dawid Jackiewicz, a former treasury minister in a PiS government (privately a friend of Adam Hofman, one of R4S’s partners) becomes GetBack’s external consultant. As reported by Newsweek, Jackiewicz allegedly acted as a middleman in a meeting between Konrad K. (head of GetBack) and Paweł Borys, head of state-owned Polish Development Fund and a close friend of prime minister Morawiecki. The meetings were one of many attempts to obtain government support for GetBack, with a 250m zloty loan at stake. 

In spring 2018, GetBack CEO wrote letters to prime minister Morawiecki, the Financial Supervision Commission and Jarosław Kaczyński. In those letters, he pleaded for funding and threatened the company might collapse. He announced publicly that he was negotiating a loan from a state-owned bank PKO BP (which the bank denies). Konrad K. also tried to negotiate with the prime minister’s father, Kornel Morawiecki, with whom he sought mediation in his dealings with the government. 

What happened to the GetBack money? The investigators have charged the company’s former management with “bringing about material damage of great proportions to the company”. They are also looking into a thread of GetBack-related entities which, according to the prosecutor’s office, may have been used to siphon money out of the company. Konrad K. has been in jail since 2018, and other former members of GetBack management have been charged along with him.

PR close to the government

Igor Janke’s presence in R4S is no accident – the PR company attracts people who used to be close to the authorities. A key figure in R4S is Adam Hofman, a former member of parliament and a long-time spokesman for PiS. In 2014, he was kicked out of the party because the media revealed that he had cheated the Polish Parliament – he would receive advance payments for car trips to the meetings of the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Madrid, but instead of driving a car he flew by plane, which is much cheaper.

Although Hofman has reiterated he is done with politics ever since, and the current government is keeping him at bay, he did cultivate his contacts with the politicians of the ruling camp at the beginning of PiS’s rule. “From time to time, he visits chairman Kaczyński himself and has a close relationship with the deputy head of PiS and a minister in prime minister’s office Adam Lipiński,” Newsweek reports in 2016.  According to Newsweek, Hofman was involved in filling the boards of state-owned companies with his people in 2016. 

Today, Hofman argues that his company stays away from politics. But in the autumn of 2019, businessman Przemysław Krych told reporters that Hofman had offered to arrange a meeting for him with Zbigniew Ziobro, the minister of justice and general prosecutor. According to Bloomberg, after his release from custody (he is facing corruption charges) Krych met with Hofman and a proposal was made to “reconcile” the businessman with Ziobro.

In an interview with VSquare, Krych does not want to comment on the case. When asked if Adam Hofman had contacted Zbigniew Ziobro before offering to arrange a meeting of Krych with the head of the prosecutor’s office, a spokeswoman for the national prosecutor’s office replies: “Minister Zbigniew Ziobro has not maintained contacts or met with Adam Hofman for many years. It is therefore utterly ludicrous to claim Adam Hofman would make any allegations he had any pull with Zbigniew Ziobro.” 

Hofman downplays his meeting with Krych, though it has been reported by Bloomberg, a reliable source. He claims that “Krych has gone crazy” and their conversation proceeded in a completely different way. 

Hofman and Janke’s company is planning to open offices in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, in addition to Hungary.

Márton Sarkadi Nagy (Atlatszo.hu) contributed to the story.

Igor Janke’s Statement

I was presented with a completely absurd allegation, with which I completely disagree. I am the victim of this scandal. From what I was presented with, it appears that in February 2018 I allegedly knew about GetBack’s difficult situation and got two advertising contracts for Salon24, thereby acting to the detriment of GetBack.

Let me remind you that it was a listed company and it was considered very successful on the market at that time. At that time, GetBack was  a sponsor of the Sieci weekly’s Man of Freedom gala, Wprost weekly’s Man of the Year, and the strategic sponsor of Gazeta Polska’s 25th anniversary gala, which took place at the National Opera and was broadcast by TVP. Key members of the government and the ruling party attended that ceremony (as well as other ceremonies). At that time, GetBack ran very wide-ranging marketing campaigns in other media as well.

At that time exactly, in February 2018, GetBack received the Stock Exchange Award. The company was supervised by the Financial Supervision Authority (KNF), and audited by Deloitte, a huge consultancy. On what grounds was I supposed to have knowledge of the bad financial situation of the company?

I testified as a witness in this case two and a half years ago and provided detailed explanations, also on this particular issue. At that time, the prosecutor found nothing suspicious. Suddenly, after such a long time, the prosecutor’s office changed their mind.

The allegation is grotesque and I expect this matter to be clarified as soon as possible. I will not allow anyone to damage my reputation. Please do use my full name and surname, and my image.

Konrad Szczygieł

Konrad Szczygieł is an investigative journalist at FRONTSTORY.PL. Previously, he was a reporter at Superwizjer TVN and OKO.Press. Since 2016, he has worked with Fundacja Reporterów (Reporters Foundation). He was shortlisted for a Grand Press award (2016, 2021) and an Andrzej Woyciechowski award (2021). He is based in Warsaw.