A trial of Grzegorz Wojtera, the head of the Suchy Las commune, has been pending since December 2021. It pertained to the lease agreements concerning two plots (one developed with the Octopus water park and the other with a parking lot in Biedrusko) as well as the construction of the Elementary School branch in Suchy Las. The Client was defended by two SMM Legal attorneys, Ms. Lidia Ignaczak and Ms. Olga Biernacka. On 29 March, the Regional Court in Poznań issued a non-final judgement acquitting Mr. Wojtera of all charges.
The Court fully agreed with the reasoning presented by the defence lawyers. The judge emphasized that the decisions made by the head of the Suchy Las commune were optimal and reasonable, and that in pursuing his initiatives Mr. Wojtera did not act to the detriment of the commune and appropriately handled public spending.
What were the charges about?
Lease agreement for the plot developed with the Octopus water park in Suchy Las
The first charge pertains to the lease agreement concerning the plot developed with the Octopus water park in 2005. According to the prosecution, as a result of the agreement, the commune suffered damage of ca. PLN 4.5 million. It was calculated on the basis of the rent paid to the owner of the plot. The prosecution claims that the water park could have been erected on a piece of land directly owned by the commune, thus avoiding the costs of lease.
Defence attorneys from SMM Legal proved that, when entering into the agreement, the commune owned no undeveloped plots that would satisfy the required technical parameters and residents’ needs. The only other option involved demolishing a sports ground and a running track next to the school, in order to develop the water park on that site. This choice, however, would be inconsistent with the interests of the commune and would involve an additional, unnecessary expense.
Lease agreement for the plot used as a parking lot in Biedrusko
The second charge concerns the lease agreement of 2010 for a plot used as a parking lot in Biedrusko. Likewise, also in this case the prosecution attempted to prove that the commune incurred a loss of about half a million zloty as a result of making the rent payments to the owner of the land. As an alternative, the prosecution suggested that the plot should have been purchased.
The defence attorneys emphasized that the lease does not pertain to the plot alone, but to the entire property developed with the parking lot, inclusive of lightening, fencing and greenery. The value of outlays on the parking lot amounted to ca. PLN 500,000, as confirmed by a cost estimate.
As a result, it is a mistake to compare the rent with the purchase price of an undeveloped plot, as initially offered by the plot owner. Had the commune decided to purchase the plot, it would have had to incur the outlays to develop the parking lot, which fully compensates for the value of the alleged damage caused by the head of the commune.
What is more, current terms and conditions give the commune the priority right to purchase the land, while a portion of the rent is allocated to the so-called buy-out fund. Currently as much as PLN 400,000 has been allocated to the fund, which is to be used to purchase the parking lot.
Construction of the Elementary School branch
The third and the most serious charge pertains to three contracts made by the head of the commune with MHA Invest to construct a branch of the Elementary School in Suchy Las at Konwaliowa Street. The contracts concerned the construction of the school, the sports hall, the lease of the buildings and their buy-out at a later date. In prosecution’s opinion, the contracts caused damage of ca. 13 million zlotys to the commune, as it would have been cheaper to take out mortgage.
The defence attorneys argued that the head of the commune opted for this solution because he wanted to address the problem of overcrowded school facilities as fast as possible and prepare the school for admitting 6 year-olds. To incur a mortgage was not an option, as the loan would have caused the commune to exceed its debt ceiling. On top of this, there was no guarantee that the local authorities would have been approved for such mortgage at all.
Nevertheless, even if we disregard the fact that the commune could not have incurred mortgage and stayed within the permitted debt limits, the prosecution failed to prove that the mortgage would have indeed been the cheaper alternative. The contract was made for 15 years (i.e. until 2029), while the costs of mortgage until the end of the contract term cannot be predicted. What is more, owing to contractual provisions, over the 15 years of lease the commune bears no costs related to the repainting of the walls, periodical check-ups of the equipment, insurance and, most importantly, the construction risk. The costs of any major failures to the building are borne by the private entity that lets the school building to the commune.
On current terms and conditions, following the 15-year period, the commune may buy back the school for PLN 0.01.
Key take-aways from the trial
The prosecution demanded a 2-year prison sentence suspended for 3 years, a fine and an injunction to redress damage by paying over PLN 18 million to the commune.
‘The turning point in the trial was the second hearing of the court expert. In response to the questions by the defence attorneys, the expert withdrew from some of the opinions regarding the finances of the commune that were unfavourable to our client. The indictment was largely based on these claims,’ explains Mr. Krzysztof Urbańczak, Partner with SMM Legal managing our criminal law department. ‘Perhaps the trial would not have taken place at all, had the prosecutor not refused to hear the expert, Katarzyna Królak, twice during the investigation. It was already at that time that we could have proved her opinions to be useless and mistaken. This would have spared Mr. Wojtera the stress and would have saved taxpayers’ money’ adds Mr. Urbańczak.
‘We have shown that Grzegorz Wojtera’s actions were motivated by his willingness to serve his constituents, with the approval of the commune council and in compliance with applicable procedures,’ comments Mr. Przemysław Maciak, Managing Partner at SMM Legal. ‘All the three investments that the trial pertained to have visibly contributed to the development of the commune and addressed actual challenges faced by the local authorities as a result of the inflow of a large number of new residents. We have clearly shown that the head of the commune managed the funds correctly, without increasing the debt ratio of the commune, despite pursuing a number of investments,’ adds Mr. Maciak.
As many as 57 witnesses and one court expert were heard during the trial, which took place over 10 court sittings. The investigation was initiated in January 2019, and in June 2021 Mr. Wojtera was arraigned. At the investigation stage, the official was heard twice as a suspect, each of the hearings lasting about 8 hours. The first court sitting took place in December 2021 and, after nearly two years, the case was closed on 29 March 2023 with a judgement acquitting Mr. Wojtera of all the three charges. The judgement is not final.
The SMM Legal defence team consisted of four attorneys from our Firm. In the courtroom Mr. Wojtera was defended by Ms. Lidia Ignaczak and Ms. Olga Biernacka. SMM Legal Partners – Mr. Krzysztof Urbańczak (head of the criminal law department) and Mr. Przemysław Maciak (Managing Partner) – provided support to the defence team in the development of the trial strategy and tactics.