The former mayor of Greece's second-largest city and two former top municipal officials were sentenced to life in prison Wednesday, after a court convicted them of embezzling more than €17 million ($22 million) in city funds.
The court ruled that Vassilis Papageorgopoulos, a former champion sprinter who was Thessaloniki's mayor from 1999-2010 and previously a conservative politician, was a key part of the scam. Papageorgopoulos, 65, denied any wrongdoing.
"I declare that I have nothing to do with this case," he told the Thessaloniki court, which convicted him of direct complicity in embezzlement. "Some people will go to their graves weighed down by remorse."
He claimed his trial had turned into a "political process," conducted "to satisfy the general mood that calls for politicians' blood."
Greece is in the throes of a major financial crisis after years of inept public financial stewardship. Popular sentiment runs hot against mainstream politicians seen as responsible for the crisis, which has led to repeated income cuts and tax hikes amid a six-year recession and record-high unemployment.
Papageorgopoulos, a dentist, was a lawmaker with the now-governing New Democracy party from 1981-2008, and served as a junior minister for sport in the early 1990s.
The municipality's former general secretary, Michalis Lemoussias, and former treasurer Panagiotis Saxonis were also given life sentences.
All three appealed their convictions. They were to be jailed later Wednesday.
Two former financial directors were sentenced to 10 and 15 years each, and were released pending their appeal.
Saxonis was responsible for forwarding to social security funds the contributions withheld from municipal employees' salaries. The court found that he allegedly kept that money and, after retaining a 10 percent cut for himself, forwarded the rest to Lemoussias — who allegedly split it with Papageorgopoulos.
The funds were allegedly initially banked in a joint account in the names of Papageorgopoulos and Lemoussias.
A judicial probe was ordered after one of the funds involved noticed that it had not been receiving contributions. Papageorgopoulos has also been charged with alleged money laundering and has been indicted to stand trial over another case of missing municipal funds.
Presiding judge Giorgos Apostolakis said that the former mayor was clearly involved in the embezzlement.
"Papageorgopoulos was in charge, and without his approval Lemoussias could have done nothing," he said. "His silent stance on the sidelines showed that he knew everything."
Papageorgopoulos was a Greek 100-meter sprint champion in the 1970s, holding the national record in the discipline for 21 years, and took part in the 1972 and 1976 Olympics.