WARSAW – A prominent transplant surgeon who serves as speaker of Poland's Senate defended himself from allegations that he took bribes from patients, claims that appeared in state-controlled media and which the doctor-politician's supporters said were an attempt to discredit a government opponent.
The Senate speaker usually does not hold huge power or attract much interest in Poland. But since the country's fall election, Tomasz Grodzki has emerged as the only elected official with any real - albeit limited - power to put up roadblocks as the ruling Law and Justice party seeks to exert control over the Polish judicial system.
Public media in recent weeks have carried claims they said came from anonymous patients who accused Grodzki, 61, of soliciting bribes from them at a hospital in his home city of Szczecin.
Grodzki, who is a member of the opposition Civic Platform Party, denies the allegations that he solicited bribes.
On Tuesday, he held up his phone for reporters and played a recording of a patient who said he had been approached and offered 5,000 zlotys ($1,300) if he signed a false claim accusing Grodzki of asking for a bribe.
Poland's Central Anti-Corruption Bureau, a government body, on Thursday encouraged anyone with knowledge of “the acceptance of financial benefits by a person performing a public function” at the Szczecin hospital to come forward. The bureau offered potential witnesses legal immunity.
Grodzki called the bureau's move so shocking that he assumed at first the information was wrong.
The liberal Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper ran a front-page editorial Friday that called the accusations and the investigation “a scandalous example of using state institutions against citizens.”
"Today the target of the witch hunt is speaker Grodzki, tomorrow it could be each of us,” the paper said.
Polish doctors often earn low wages and patients often have long waits, sometimes even for life-saving treatments. For many years — one of the legacies of communist rule across the region — it was common for patients to offer gifts or money to doctors and nurses in hopes of securing better and faster care.
The practice has become less common since it was made a criminal offense in recent years. Some health professionals refuse any gifts to avoid the appearance of impropriety.
After Grodzki was elected speaker in the fall, Polish tabloids asked questions about a Jaguar he drives. Grodzki said he leases the car, which costs less. His public declaration of assets shows that he and his wife, who also is a doctor, own a house of 120 square meters (1,300 square feet), a small apartment and have about $80,000 in savings.
The Regional Medical Chamber in Szczecin also came to Grodzki's defense, saying it never received any complaints from patients about him and describing him as a respected doctor.
Law and Justice won control of both houses of Poland's parliament and the presidency in 2015 and used its unprecedented power to remake the country in line with its conservative and nationalist values.
Its actions have sparked European Union concerns that democratic norms are under threat in the EU member nation. The party retained control of the lower house of parliament in the October election but barely lost the Senate, where it now has 49 seats to the opposition’s 51.
And Grodzki has shown he plans to use what tools he has to oppose a bill the lower house passed last month that would give the government unprecedented powers to fire judges.
Amnesty International has declared the proposed law would spell “the end of the separation of powers in Poland,” and judges from across Europe are expected to be in Warsaw on Saturday to protest against the measure.
With the Senate due to begin debating the bill next week, Grodzki asked a delegation of legal experts from the Council of Europe, Europe’s top human rights body, to visit Warsaw this week and give an opinion of the law. The government contended the request exceeded Grodzki's constitutional role.
The Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner, Dunja Mijatovic, sent a letter to Grodzki on Thursday asking him to do what is in his power to get the Senate to reject the bill.
A deputy foreign minister on Friday called that unprecedented interference in Poland’s international affairs and government representatives refused to meet with the international experts.
Ultimately, the Senate can only scrutinize the bill and send it back to the lower house with recommendations for changes. The lower house was expected to pass the measure again due to Law and Justice's majority.