Agriculture Minister Podgoršek resigns over hotel bill payment

Ljubljana – Agriculture Minister Jože Podgoršek resigned on Wednesday after he became the target of media scrutiny over lack of clarity regarding the payment of his weekend stay at an upscale hotel in Bohinj in January. He said he was “resigning exclusively due to the late payment of the bill”, and was accepting responsibility for this.

“This is a fact and I regret it,” Podgoršek said in a press statement published on Facebook, which comes after a media report saying that he did not pay for the weekend stay at the hotel.

The anti-graft watchdog has already launched a preliminary inquiry into potential ethics breaches, while Podgoršek himself claims he was being blackmailed and has reported the matter to the criminal police.

It was the investigative portal Necenzurirano that reported last week that Podgoršek and his wife stayed at the hotel owned by crypto millionaire Damian Merlak but did not pay the EUR 800 bill, doing so only after being asked for comment this month.

After the report was published, Podgoršek said he had asked the hotel to mail the bill because he and his wife were in a hurry, but he said he did not receive the bill at that time and did not realise that until he was contacted by Necenzurirano.

The portal suggested the payment of the bill may have to do with KŽK, a company which owns vast tracts of farmland in Gorenjska and was until 2019 part-owned by the hotel owner Merlak, who has since severed all formal ties with it.

KŽK has been in a dispute with the Farmland Fund for two years over land that it leases from the fund and wanted to sublet to farmers. The fund refused to settle out of court and its director, Irena Majcen, was dismissed in November last year.

Majcen claimed at the time she was fired because she refused to heed to Podgoršek’s pressure to settle in favour of KŽK and another company with a similar dispute, KG Lendava. The case is now in court.

The story took a turn yesterday with a statement by KŽK that the company paid Podgoršek’s hotel bill, a copy of the paid bill, dated 30 January, having been obtained by several media.

KŽK said it was in a “totally subordinated relationship towards the minister and because the bill had to be paid, the hotel sent it to us and we paid it.” But KŽK also said it “neither demanded nor received any favours or privileges.”

Podgoršek yesterday “vehemently rejected” any connection with KŽK or allegations that the company had arranged for his private stay at the hotel, adding that he had paid the bill out of his own pocket.

According to Necenzurirano, Podgoršek demanded that the bill paid by KŽK be cancelled and a new one issued so he could pay it.

Podgoršek, who joined the coalition New Slovenia (NSi) party when he was already a minister and on whose ticket he now runs for the 24 April general election, claims he is being blackmailed by KŽK.

Commenting on the resignation today, NSi president Matej Tonin said he and the minister had had a long conversation yesterday, that Podgoršek had accepted the responsibility, and that the move was a “sign of political culture”.

Podgoršek added that his “lack of attention to detail has been exploited by those who wanted to take advantage of it.”

He is convinced that, by not succumbing to pressure and standing up for farmers from Gorenjska, he has “become very disruptive for some people”.

“Some people apparently go to great lengths to issue and correct a multitude of bills to smear me. I have obtained various versions of invoices from the hotel these days, the purpose of which I can only guess,” he added.

Podgoršek said that there were apparently two different bills issued to two different names and with different amounts for the same service.

He and his wife spent the weekend at the hotel based on a package that cost EUR 800, and the bill on Podgoršeks’ names was sent to his private e-mail and paid.

The media have recently published another bill, issued on a different name and amounting to EUR 578. “I have nothing to do with that bill,” said the outgoing minister.

He added that this was a “process against me and my family staged in advance, which is likely to continue these days with various fabricated pieces of information from those who want to harm me.”

“My resignation does not mean that farmers from Gorenjska will be left to their own devices,” he said, adding that he would do everything in his power to protect them by using all legal means available.

Tonin added that he was convinced that the issue had been raised because KŽK wanted to force Podgoršek to act in line with its interests.

The centre-left opposition parties see the resignation as proof of the bad ways of the incumbent government, which the SocDems described as a government of chaos, conflict and corruption.

Speaking for the Left, Matej T. Vatovec said the main problem of this government was that they were “willing to succumb to corruption for a couple hundred euros”. He wondered what was going on in defence procurement and infrastructure projects.

SAB leader Alenka Bratušek commented it was “sad agriculture ministers are busy with their holiday breaks, which they don’t pay for in the end, rather than with Slovenian food”.

LMŠ leader Marjan Šarec finds its “hypocritical to step down two days ahead of the election and then talk about your standards” after he said the government had no standards for two years.

Meanwhile, Zmago Jelinčič, the leader of the National Party (SNS), believes the resignation comes as a big blow to the NSi, “which will lose quite a few voters in this way”. He wondered about the timing of the scandal.

Podgoršek, who was appointed agriculture minister in late 2020 following the resignation of Aleksandra Pivec for similar reasons, is the fourth minister in the Janez Janša government to resign before the end of the term.

In addition to Pivec, also to leave their posts in the cabinet early were Health Minister Tomaž Gantar in early 2021, after the Pensioners’ Party (DeSUS) left the coalition, and Justice Minister Lilijana Kozlovič in May 2021.