Updated at: 12/21/2012 5:36 PM
NICHOLAS PAPHITIS and DEREK GATOPOULOS
(AP) ATHENS, Greece - Fourteen people have been charged with criminal fraud in Greece in a major investigation into a nonprofit group involved in a series of environmental conferences on cruise ships attended by religious leaders and renowned experts.
Police and judicial authorities said Friday that 10 former executives of the now-disbanded Greek-based organization "Cycle of Patmos" and four of the suspects’ relatives were charged with multiple counts of fraud and money laundering after (EURO)3 million ($4 million) was not accounted for in the group’s financial records.
The charges come amid a crackdown on abuse of public funds during Greece’s acute financial crisis, and authorities are also investigating dozens of other NGOs that received state funding. The country is being kept afloat by international bailouts, issued on condition of harsh spending cuts, tax hikes and other austerity measures that have plunged thousands into poverty.
The group received state funding from Greece and the European Union, and organized a series of major environmental events from the Arctic to the Mississippi between 1997 and 2009, police said. The events were held under an environmental interfaith initiative led by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the Istanbul, Turkey-based spiritual leader of the world’s 250 million Orthodox Christians.
The conferences attended by high-profile groups of religious leaders, scientists and activists served as a platform for dialogue between the Orthodox and Catholic.
A conference in the Adriatic Sea in 2002 led to a joint declaration between Bartholomew and Pope John Paul II _ who attended by video link _ on the shared Christian responsibility to protect the environment.
Police on Friday did not identify the 14 suspects.
"Sums of money were transferred from the bank account of the non-governmental organization to accounts of its members for the payment of personal loans, the operation of off-shore companies and property refurbishment," police said in a statement.
It said the suspects also allegedly charged the organizations with bogus and personal expenses, used its facilities as private property, and assigned projects to close associates without holding tenders.
In one case, the statement said, the suspects failed to return funding from a Greek ministry after a Caspian Sea conference was cancelled due to security concerns. For another conference, a Greek bank and the government were billed for the same item.
The Greek foreign ministry, which provided the Cycle of Patmos with (EURO)1.2 million of the (EURO)1.6 million cost of a 2006 cruise down the Amazon, was among the main donors.
A foreign ministry official said the ministry is fully cooperating with the judiciary and providing all available information to help the investigation. The official spoke on condition of anonymity, because he wasn’t authorized to comment on the case.
While the investigation concerns the Cycle of Patmos NGO, the conference websites list the London-based Religion, Science and the Environment group as organizers. The RSE site refers to an Athens office with the same address, phone and fax numbers used by the Patmos Cycle.
Conference sponsors listed on the RSE site are mostly Greek entities _ among which many state corporations _ and include Greece’s foreign, culture and finance ministries.
The RSE could not be reached for comment late Friday.
A prosecutor heading the investigation recommended that further judicial action be taken to seize property owned by the suspects if they are convicted.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)