Greece’s Honest Statistician Pays Price for Ethics

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A Greek appeals court has convicted Andreas Georgiou, the former president of the Hellenic Statistical Authority, known as ELSTAT, of violation of duty for his actions in recalculating national statistics and showing that Greece’s financial situation was much more dire than had been advertised. His new figures were front and center in the Greek financial crisis of 2010, which saw hundreds of billions of Euros in bailouts from the European Union.

Georgiou received a two-year suspended sentence for what the court ruled as a “breach of duty” in producing honest accounts of the country’s debt and deficit. The court acquitted him of two other charges, one that he did not convene board meetings and the second that he retained a long-standing position at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a short time when he first joined ELSTAT. The appeals court ruling still can be appealed to Greece’s highest court.

A Greek national, Georgiou has a long career in monetary and fiscal stabilization policy since graduation with a doctorate in economics from the University of Michigan. He spent 21 years at the IMF based in Washington, D.C. He decided to return to Greece as the head of the National Statistical Service to lend his expertise as his homeland became the poster child of the European debt crisis in 2009.

Once in Greece, he removed the statistics office from the office of the Minister of Finance and renamed the newly independent agency the Hellenic Statistics Authority and determined it would follow the EU’s Statistics Code of Practice. While the numbers may have gotten better, Greece’s situation did not, and the austerity measures required for EU assistance produced immense distress on the Greek streets. This turn led to a hunt for scapegoats. “It’s someone else’s fault,” Georgiou said Monday with a rueful smile. “That someone else is the messenger,” he added, noting there have been calls to “hang him in the public square.”

He left ELSTAT in 2015, and has since moved back to Maryland in the United States as his case – dubbed a “show trial” by some supporters — plays out. “Mr. Andreas Georgiou believes fully in his innocence, for which he will fight for as long as it takes,” reads part of statement from his legal team.

The professional statistical community has been outraged by Georgiou’s case, seeing him as an honest statistician bravely upholding the ethics and norms of the profession and being ground down for his efforts. In short, this is seen not just as attack on good government but as an attack on science.

“Why this animosity toward Dr. Georgiou?” wrote Barry Nussbaum, president of the American Statistical Association, and Katherine K. Wallman, a former ASA president and former chief statistician of the United States, in the Huffington Post.Simply put, the new, corrected numbers showed a greater Greek debt than previously reported. This resulted in greater austerity measures affecting Greek citizens. Their response was to follow a ‘shoot the messenger’ scenario.”

Even as his lawyer argued his case in Athens on Monday, Georgiou addressed the Joint Statistical Meeting in a session entitled “National Governments, Coerced Narratives, Creative Language, and Alternative Facts.” In his talk, Georgiou outlined the depth of methodological malfeasance he observed in the Greek accounts when he came on in 2010. “This was not one or two or three mistakes or that we have a methodological difference of opinion,” he explained; instead, he discovered widespread manipulation of the national books for clear political purposes.

“Official statistics,” he said, “have been a tool in the political toolkit.” He set about remedying this situation in his five years at ELSTAT, often with the assistance of the European Union. This in turn aired much of Greece’s dirty laundry – which also brought Georgiou a slander conviction in March, not for saying something untrue, but for revealing something embarrassing to the state. As Der Spiegel put it in February, “Georgiou himself feels that, if he is guilty of anything, it is for breaking with tradition and bringing the infamously dodgy Greek public finance records in line with EU standards.”

In Nussbaum and Wallman’s Huffington Post piece, they noted that Georgiou’s actual recalculations have stood up to scrutiny. “For the record, Georgiou’s economic figures have withstood scrutiny and have been validated by many, including repeatedly by the European Commission. We are not aware of any credible reports contradicting his numbers. What seems more likely is the difficulty of facing rigorous scientific findings because of the consequences this would have for the Greek economy. Some even went so far as to say Georgiou was not following the Greek way and named him a traitor.”

Georgiou’s defenders have been vocal about his plight, issuing statements and raising money for his defense. The ASA, for example, issued the statement below on Tuesday:

“We were disturbed to learn this morning of the conviction of Andreas Georgiou, the former president of the Hellenic Statistical Authority (ELSTAT), on charges of violation of duty by an appeals court in Greece. Dr. Georgiou was acquitted of these charges in December 2015; the decision to retry him amounts to double-jeopardy. As noted in our March 27 letter to Alexis Tsipras, Prime Minister of the Hellenic Republic, “There is widespread agreement among statistical authorities that Dr. Georgiou compiled Greek public finance statistics in accordance with EU rules and standards, with which Greece is obliged to comply, and that the charges against him are baseless.” We reiterate the call that: “all remaining charges against Dr. Georgiou and his former colleagues be dropped immediately. Under no circumstances can criminal sanctions for developing and presenting independent and objective statistical data in a credible way be justified.”

The ASA’s science policy director, Steve Pierson, frequently updates members on Georgiou’s plight on his science policy blog (click here).

 

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