FRAUD POSES LATEST THREAT TO E. EUROPE ECONOMIES CRIME PERCEIVED AS EASY TO COMMIT

FRAUD POSES LATEST THREAT TO E. EUROPE ECONOMIES CRIME PERCEIVED AS EASY TO COMMIT

Whether it is a pyramid scheme in Romania or a giant money-laundering operation in Slovenia, economic crime is surfacing in Eastern Europe.

This presents a growing political challenge to the ruling government coalitions and a warning to foreign investors to be cautious in selecting partners in the region, experts said.The problem of economic fraud is "very, very large even by American standards" and could devastate Eastern Europe's small, fragile economies, said Charles H. Morley, a U.S. financial investigator advising the authorities in Eastern Europe.

Asked by Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Drnovsek to check into allegations of widespread money-laundering operations and corporate swindling, Mr. Morley said that "tremendous fraud is being perpetrated" against tax authorities and individual companies throughout Eastern Europe.

He said the problem is compounded by the growing perception that ''everybody is stealing from everybody else" and that economic crime goes unpunished.

"If economic crime is perceived as easy to commit, and white collar criminals can operate with impunity, you have a big problem," he said, speaking in a telephone interview from his Arlington, Va., office.

The problems in Slovenia surfaced recently when members of Parliament began to ask why Elan, the country's pre-eminent ski manufacturer and the pride of its industry, went bankrupt three years ago, chalking up hundreds of millions of dollars in losses.

A report by the Social Accounting Services' auditors released in late October added fuel to the debate, identifying several dozen companies that show grave irregularities in their books. The report implied the company assets may have been looted prior to privatization.

Dozens of criminal investigations have been launched against former managers of Elan and other large companies, but so far there have been no convictions.

Mr. Morley, who believes as much as 500 million deutsche marks ($294 million) might have been embezzled from Elan, said the accounting practices throughout much of Eastern Europe "are not sophisticated enough to permit the type of internal financial control we are used to" in the West.

Corporate financial data are often in such disarray, stealing is "like taking candy from a baby," he said.

Typically, executives of companies selling abroad simply deposit the proceeds offshore in secret bank accounts, cheating both the compa- nies of their earnings and the government of taxes. Company accounts are subsequently doctored to cover up this practice.

Others close to the investigation said top managers of many companies undergoing privatization are believed to be plundering company assets by selling equipment and then using the proceeds to buy what is left from the government. Although the Slovenian privatization law requires each state-owned company slated for sale to produce an independent audit report, even government officials are skeptical about the usefulness of this exercise.

Although disagreeing that the practice of corporate fraud is widespread, Mira Puc, who heads Slovenia's privatization agency, said companies routinely maintain several sets of books.

"You have one set of records for the tax authorities, one for the auditor and one for the investor," she said.

In addition, although companies are required to produce the audit reports, they cannot be compelled to produce the documents on which the reports are based.

But neither Ms. Puc nor government authorities in other countries of Central Europe, including Czech Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus, find fraud to be a burning issue.

Their reasoning goes like this: The main aim of the privatization process is to transfer as much of the economy to private ownership in as short a time as possible and thus make the companies themselves responsible for their well being.

Managers would be acting against their own economic interests by stealing

from the companies they want to acquire, and therefore, such incidents are infrequent.

Moreover, the price of tolerating individual fraud is much smaller than the price of delaying the privatization process with detailed investigations.

Alenka Snidarsic, a criminal investigator advising Premier Drnovsek, agrees the issue of economic crime is being exploited by opposition deputies in the Parliament.

"In today's climate, every company that has suffered a loss is suspect," she said.

Elan's collapse was due largely to bad decision-making over a period of several years rather than to management fraud, she said.

"We were very proud of Elan and, suddenly, it went bankrupt . . . it has become a very emotional issue," she said.

But she said the process of preprivatization audits in the estimated 2,500 companies on the sell-off list is likely to uncover additional irregularities and that the flight of capital to bank accounts in neighboring Austria, Switzerland and the Caribbean is beginning to pose a problem.

To address the matter, the Slovenian Central Bank earlier this month issued a regulation requiring companies to file a report on every capital transfer abroad.

Violators would be subject to severe penalties. Ms. Snidarsic said new rules also are being drafted to prevent illegal money laundering by Slovenia's booming casinos. Today, she said, "money laundering is not illegal."