STA, 17 February 2021 - Four orthopaedic surgeons and a salesperson were sentenced to jail terms ranging from ten months to three years on Wednesday in what is the largest healthcare corruption trial in Slovenia. The Ljubljana District Court also imposed fines on them, while three of the doctors will also have their unlawfully gained assets seized.
Darko Žafran, a former sales representative at medical supplier Emporio Medical, was found guilty of giving bribes and sentenced to a year and six months in prison.
The doctors were sentenced for receiving the bribes, Robert Janez Cirman to three years, Rok Vengust to two years and two months, Vane Antolič to a year and six months, and Samo Karl Fokter to ten months.
The scandal broke out in December 2013, when police carried out house searches at almost 60 addresses around Slovenia, finding large amounts of cash and even gold bars.
Emporio Medical was at the centre of it, suspected of bribing the doctors in exchange for continuing ordering medical supplies made by a particular producer.
Urška Jurkovič, Emporio Medical's former director and co-owner, was the main witness for the prosecution, while the defence team questioned her credibility.
Neither defendant pleaded guilty when prosecutor Iztok Krumpak offered them a plea bargain in exchange for lower sentences before the trial started in January 2020.
In his closing argument last week, Krumpak said it was proven beyond a reasonable doubt the defendants had committed the criminal acts for which they were on trial.
Judge Dejana Fekonja also handed down fines totalling around EUR 59,000, ranging from EUR 6,000 to EUR 20,000.
Cirman, Fokter and Vengust will also have the unlawfully gained assets seized - around EUR 53,000, EUR 6,000 and almost EUR 33,000, respectively.
Despite finding them guilty, the judge did not go along with the prosecution's demand to temporarily strip the doctors of their licences.
She argued that they had not committed the crime in connection with medical treatment. The prosecution plans to lodge an appeal.
The judge meanwhile said "the court is not naive to think today's verdicts will change anything in the field of corruption in Slovenia. But it should be clear that anyone will be sentenced who has been proved to have asked for, accepted or given bribes, whether a state secretary, doctor, technician or warehouse employee."
She said it had been proven the doctors had had a say in deciding what medical supplies will be used, citing the example of UKC Ljubljana's Orthopaedic Clinic's spine division, which chose Emporio Medical as a supplier on the initiative of Vengust as the head of the division.
Fekonja said the doctors had received the kickbacks in various ways: as a payment of subscription fees for medical journals, a payment of registration fee for conferences, a payment of Christmas parties, deposits on bank accounts or in cash, with Žafran a middleman between the doctors and Emporio Medical.
Žafran received the bribe money from the company's former co-owners And and Urška Jurkovič on his special bank account in Croatia to distribute it to the doctors.
The defence will also appeal the verdict, with Fokter's lawyer Janez Koščak saying "the judge did not dare take a different decision because the media have done an excellent job".
He said the verdict was not based on evidence but on drawing conclusions. He said the doctors had been sentenced on the basis of notes made at Emporio Medical on which none of them had any influence. "They were sentenced on the basis of some notes made by third persons and rather diabolic drawing of conclusions by the court."
Before the trial started last year, the judge split it into several smaller ones due to as many as eleven defendants. Today's handing down of the verdicts thus brings only the first trial to an end.
The Medical Chamber stressed today it had zero tolerance towards corruption. It said however it would comment only when the verdicts became final, referring to the presumption of innocence.
If the guilty verdicts become final after the appeals, the chamber's committee for legal and ethical matters will discuss each case and inform the public of its conclusions, the chamber told the STA.