Row over bushfire cash spent on Greek town hall

Row over bushfire cash spent on Greek town hall

27 August 2008

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Australia — Millions of dollars given by Australia to help Greek bushfire victims have been used to build a town hall, rather than going to those in need.

The Federal Government gave $3 million to help struggling families in Greece after a series of devastating bushfires killed 67 people last August.

Instead of being used to pay for everyday necessities, the money was spent on a new town hall at Zaharo, 280km southwest of Athens.

TheRed Cross in Greece approved the use of the money, even though the existing town hall was unaffected by the fires.

Two outraged opposition members on the local council have forced a halt to the construction midway through.

They approached Australia’s ambassador in Greece, Jeremy Newman, about the funds’ use and lodged a Supreme Court objection in Athens.

Writing in reply, Mr Newman confirmed the donation was intended for fire victims.

“The Australian funding was provided to the Hellenic Red Cross special emergency fund for victims of fire for the general purpose of helping with the relief effort,” he said.

Opposition councillors George Vasilopoulos and George Bousbouras say the council pursued the project without proper approval.

There had been no official tender, and it was being built in a green belt where development was not permitted.

Mr Vasilopoulos, a councillor for 12 years, said 3000 people in the region were affected by the fires. Many were rural families who had lost their livelihoods.

“They must return this money to the victims,” he said.

A sign at the site declares the town hall is being built with the support of 1.8 million from the Australian Government.

Hellenic Red Cross president Andreas Martinis confirmed the money had been allocated to the town hall, at the council’s request.

“Immediately after the fires, the municipality asked us to use this money for construction of a town hall because it was the request of all the local representatives,” Mr Martinis told a local newspaper.

“I remember when I went to Zaharo, I was received warmly and made an honorary citizen.

“I was asked to do this and it is something I agreed to do.

“When we found out from the Australian Government something was not OK with the permits, it was too late and the project had started.

“However I requested on 20 June, 2008, from the municipality of Zaharo that all work should be stopped on this project until the situation was cleared up.

“I declare categorically that the intent of the Greek Red Cross was, and is, relief for the fire victims and if someone has acted illegally in this particular instance, we reserve every legal right.”

Dozens of fires raged out of control for days in the region, destroying almost 260,000ha of bushland.

More than half the people killed were from the Zaharo area, including a mother found hugging her four children.

Mr Bousbouras and Mr Vasilopoulos are also trying to trace other aid. A football match raised $512,000 and former king Constantine provided a cheque for an unknown amount.

Mayor Pandazis Chronopoulos has ignored their requests for information, the pair said.

“We demand to know where the money has gone, and nobody is telling us,” they said.

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