Pole whose secret recordings toppled govt in a Spanish jail

A fugitive businessman convicted in an eavesdropping case that led to the fall of the Polish government is fighting extradition back to Poland, the Spanish authorities holding him said Monday

WARSAW, Poland -- A fugitive Polish businessman convicted in an eavesdropping case that led to the fall of a Polish government is fighting extradition from Spain back to Poland, Spanish authorities said Monday.

Marek Falenta was convicted of organizing the secret recordings of top Polish politicians in 2013 and 2014, creating a scandal that contributed to the defeat in 2015 of a pro-EU government in Poland and the election of a populist right-wing party.

Falenta, a 43-year-old multi-millionaire, was sentenced to 2½ years in prison but fled Poland before he was to start his sentence in February.

Spanish police said they and their Polish colleagues arrested Falenta on Friday in an upscale apartment in Cullera, a coastal town near Valencia. He threatened to jump from a balcony, police said.

A spokesman for Spain's National Court said Monday that a judge over the weekend ordered Falenta jailed until his extradition can be decided. During his preliminary hearing Saturday, Falenta refused to agree to be extradited to Poland, said the spokesman, who was not authorized to be identified by name.

While the extradition could still happen eventually, Falenta's refusal prolongs the procedure and gives him the opportunity to have his case examined again.

Falenta's many business interests included importing coal from Russia. Polish media have reported that he owed millions of dollars to a company with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, leading some to suspect a Russian role in the affair that brought down the pro-EU Polish government.

The former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, now a top EU leader, has also alluded in the past to the possible involvement of Russia, which has a long history of trying to influence politics in Poland and other countries in Central and Eastern Europe.

In all, hundreds of hours of illegal recordings were made, and two waiters have also been convicted for their roles in the affair.

Grzegorz Rzeczkowski, an investigative reporter for the weekly magazine Polityka, said he has found evidence of links between Falenta and Poland's conservative ruling party, as well as links between Falenta and Russians that go beyond the coal imports. The restaurants where the recordings took place were established by people with links to Russia.

He sees similarities between the eavesdropping in Poland and the hacking of emails of the Democratic National Committee ahead of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

"The method is different but the modus operandi is the same — to discredit the democratic side of our political scene," Rzeczkowski told the AP.

The Polish party that was discredited, Civic Platform, was a staunch supporter of neighboring Ukraine's efforts to free itself of Russian influence and chart a pro-Western course. With the new government in Poland, the Polish-Ukrainian relationship is no longer as strong. Tensions have grown as old ethnic animosities between Poland and Ukraine have been stoked by nationalists on both sides.

Bartlomiej Sienkiewicz, a former interior minister caught in the recordings, welcomed the arrest of Falenta, but said "now we are waiting to find out who stands behind them."

Sienkiewicz was heard on tape discussing a possible change of finance minister with the head of the central bank, Marek Belka. Belka wanted the finance minister removed and offered in return to help the government in case of an economic downturn — a violation of the bank's independence.

The foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, was caught describing Poland's alliance with the United States as "worthless" using vulgar language.

Law and Justice, the populist right-wing party that came to power after the scandal in Poland, has eroded the independence of the judiciary, the right to assembly and media freedom. It has also been accused of eroding democratic standards with anti-refugee rhetoric. Its current campaign platform portrays LGBT people as threats to children and families.


Parra reported from Madrid. Joseph Wilson in Barcelona contributed to this report.