According to Gazeta Wyborcza’s sources, special services are carrying out informal surveillance of guests at hotels managed by the Polish Hotel Holding [PHH]. Apart from those who are considered a terrorist threat, such espionage measures are also targeted at some activists. The PHH denies such claims.
On 10 September 2020, top party leaders representing the Civic Platform met with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, an opposition candidate for President of Belarus, who had to flee her homeland after the elections had been forged by the Lukashenko regime. The fact that after arriving in Poland, Ms Tsikhanouskaya met not only with politicians of the ruling faction was perceived negatively by the Law and Justice party. In June 2020, shortly after the first such contacts, Ryszard Terlecki, Deputy Speaker of the Polish Sejm and Chair of the Law and Justice’s parliamentary club, stated: “If Tsikhanouskaya wants to promote an anti-democratic opposition in Poland and deliver speeches at Trzaskowski’s rallies, let her seek help in Moscow, and let us support such a Belarusian opposition that does not side with our opponents”.
The above statement by Deputy Speaker Terlecki has sparked a scandal. However, opposition politicians did not discontinue their meetings with Mr Tsikhanouskaya. One of such meetings took place at the Courtyard by Marriott Warsaw Airport hotel, which was managed by the state-owned company known as the Polish Hotel Holding.
The day before said meeting, PHH CEO Gheorghe Marian Cristescu sent Joachim Brudziński, a leading Law and Justice (PiS) politician, now an MEP, detailed information about the venue and timing of the talks and their participants.
From whom did the CEO find out about this meeting? From his colleagues who, according to Gazeta Wyborcza’s sources, were (and still are) obliged to notify their superior about the top guests.
Last Friday we posted some questions on this matter to PHH. The reply we received was as follows: “The Polish Hotel Holding Group does not provide any comments on fake news spreading in the public domain”.
It is not clear, however, what PHH believes to be ‘fake news’. Most probably, the root of the problem is the fact that the content of Mr Cristescu’s email was published by Poufna Rozmowa (currently Poufnarozmowa.top), a website which has been disclosing communications of ruling politicians for nearly two years. These in turn, when asked for their comments, nearly always stay silent. Mr Brudzinski has not responded to our questions by far, either.
However, the authenticity of the e-mail has been confirmed in an interview with Gazeta Wyborcza by a second source, i.e. Mr Robert Z., who at that time held the position of Head of Security at the PHH. As he reported, this was not the only case when information about hotel guests was shared with the Law and Justice services.
Who is the “health officer”?
The Polish Hotel Holding is a state-owned company supervising ca. 54 leisure facilities, among which there are 28 hotels. Twelve of them are 4-star or 5-star hotels operating under the following brands: Marriott International, Hilton International, Best Western Hotels & Resorts, InterContinental Hotels Group and Louvre Hotels Group. The PHH is a franchisee for these establishments, benefiting from their branding, prestige and their worldwide reputation. A majority of guests do not know that when they spend the night at e.g. Courtyard at Warsaw Marriot Airport, they are actually staying at a hotel run by a state-owned entity.
Mr Gheorghe Marian Cristescu, CEO at the PPH is an experienced hotelier. He is a friend of Joachim Brudziński and his professional career gained momentum when the Law and Justice came to power. In 2016, he started to manage the operations of Chopin Airport Development, on the basis of which the PHH was founded in 2019. He also served as an aide to the Minister of Sports, and was awarded the Cross of Merit by President Andrzej Duda. In 2022, the pro-government daily paper Gazeta Polska Codziennie granted him the Freedom of Speech Award.
Why did he inform Brudzinski about the opposition meeting? Just sharing information about hotel guests with politicians is clearly a violation of hospitality industry standards. The very content of hotel correspondence is also alarming. We would like to quote this exchange in full:
“Date: 9 September; 10.33 a.m. Subject: VIP Dinner on 10.09.2020
Robert, further to our call yesterday I am sending you more information regarding Thursday’s dinner at CY.
On Thursday 7.30 p.m. A dinner has been scheduled in the Private Dining Room for six people, hosted by the Civic Platform.
Below please see the list of guests:
1. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya (escorted by the State Protection Service)
2. Mr Dąbrowski
3. Borys Budka
4. Tomasz Siemoniak
5. Robert Tyszkiewicz
6. Maryja Łucewicz-Nepałkow
On this day, the SPS [State Protection Service] officers will appear at the hotel from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. (to be confirmed) and will screen the venue for security. The SPS representatives will be present throughout the dinner, i.e. from 7.30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Yesterday I personally met with them and we agreed on the details.
The dinner menu and drinks have been confirmed by the hosts but the health officer is also due to arrive.
From the hotel’s side, tomorrow from 12 noon, we appointed Simon, who represents our security staff, to coordinate and supervise the meeting. I will also be personally present at the hotel in the evening, so I guess everything is under our control for the time being. Regards, Artur”.
“Robert” who is the intended recipient, is, in fact, Robert Z., Head of Security at the PHH. Meanwhile “Artur”, the signatory, is Artur D., the then hotel manager. “CY” is an internal abbreviation commonly used for “Courtyard”. Participants marked by Nos. 3 – 5 are the Civic Platform leaders (Mr Budka was still the party’s chair at the time) and No. 6 is an interpreter. But who exactly is the “health officer”?
It is not clear who is meant, as no such area of expertise exists. Our two interlocutors, who are familiar with an internal terminology used by the Internal Security Agency claim that a “health officer” is the term used to describe the support of special technology, i.e. eavesdropping and surveillance set up by the services. – If such a term is used within the internal correspondence of two prominent hotel workers, it means that they are cooperating with the services and, at the very least, are supposed to facilitate their operational tasks – explains to Gazeta Wyborcza a former ISA officer. As he adds, the term ‘health ambulance’ means that an anti-terrorist unit could be deployed.
We also asked the PHH press service who the ‘health officer’ was. However, we did not get any answer. So we asked them a direct question: “Did the staff at PHH hotels regularly survey the guests pinpointed by the Internal Security Agency?” The answer we got is brief and not quite clear: “The Polish Hotel Holding Group that there was any regular surveillance of guests identified by the ABW by hotel staff at PHH hotels. However, PHH does not claim that this has never happened.
“The boys need some help”
– Mr Cristescu called me into his office. He said that the boys needed to be helped, because they might want to know something about this meeting,” Robert Z tells Gazeta Wyborcza. Robert used to be the Head of Security at the Polish Hotel Holding from February 2019 to November 2021. Later he worked for the Ministry of the Interior and Administration. He asks that – due to family considerations – his full name not be disclosed, but has signed a statement authorising the use of his account in the article.
– I asked [the CEO] if he realised what he was requesting and that it would come out one day for sure. I said: “After all, the top leaders of the Polish opposition are supposed to be there, meeting with a persecuted opposition leader in Belarus. Well, if this comes to light, there will be an international scandal”.
Robert Z. says that after this conversation he was summoned by Maciej Wąsik, the Law and Justice MP and Deputy Minister for Interior, and Deputy Coordinator for Special Services. Robert Z. was familiar Ms Wąsik as he was an MP from his constituency. He also says that he got the job at the PHH thanks to Mr Wąsik – Mr Cristescu needed someone linked to the services, so Brudzinski asked Wąsik to recommend him someone, and he pointed me out because I had some experience in this field, explains Robert Z. He has previously worked, for instance, for the Prison Service.
– I said that I would not like to be involved in anything like that, adding that if they wanted to know what was at that meeting, let them plant their own man from the State Protection Service to act as Tsikhanouskaya’s bodyguard. After all, they had done this before” Robert Z. tells us. As he suspects, in the end the ISA hired a waiter, who agreed to cooperate, to attend this meeting.
We also submitted a couple of questions to Maciej Wąsik (via two phone numbers and two email boxes). We asked whether he was aware of the practice of surveillance of hotel guests staying at hotels belonging to the PHH chain by special services. Is there any formal cooperation between the services and the PHH in this regard? Was there surveillance of the meeting between the Civic Platform politicians and Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya on 10 September 2020? Was he aware of this?
There is no answer so far.
Catching Bartosz Kramek in the act
The last two questions to Maciej Wąsik concerned a different matter. We asked him whether he had spoken to Robert Z. about the operational measures taken against Bartosz Kramek and whether he had urged Robert Z. to cooperate with the Internal Security Agency in this regard.
Bartosz Kramek is a Chair of the Open Dialogue Foundation, and carries out his professional activities both in Poland and abroad. He takes initiatives aimed at safeguarding democracy and the rule of law in Poland and Eastern European countries. Mr Kramek is now engaged in a fierce dispute with the Law and Justice government. He successfully exposes threats to democracy and violations of the rule of law in our country to the EU institutions. For the past few years, Mr Kramek and the ODF have been in the focus of the Law and Justice special services and the pro-government media. These actors have even suggested that the Foundation has been spying for Russia. In 2021, Kramek was arrested, as he was facing money-laundering charges. He was released from prison on bail. His wife, Lyudmila Kozlovska, is banned from entering Poland, despite the fact that the international courts have declared that the actions of the Polish authorities taken against her were unlawful. Following the Russian aggression on Ukraine, the ODF provides large-scale support to the Ukrainian army (bulletproof vests, other military equipment) and provides humanitarian aid.
While Robert Z. was serving in his position at the Holding, a lawsuit brought by the Open Dialogue Foundation against Maciej Wąsik was in progress. The ODF and Mr Kramek himself accused the minister of violating their personal rights, as he had publicly accused them of being linked to Russia and being involved in money laundering. In 2022, Mr Wąsik lost a trial at the first instance court, but in the period covered by the article, this judgment had not yet been passed. According to Robert Z., the ISA, which requested informal surveillance of selected guests staying at PHH hotels, was also interested in the aforementioned activist. Meanwhile, Mr Wąsik was allegedly personally interested in collecting information discrediting the head of the Open Dialogue Foundation.
In February 2023, Robert Z was no longer employed by the Ministry of Interior and Administration. As he says today, he is not embarrassed by the fact that he once supported the Law and Justice and was associated with that party, and that he still continues to identify with the ideas which the Law and Justice advocates to its voters. – However, I cannot accept the undignified methods and actions pursued by some people. Therefore, on 10 February 2023, he contacted Bartosz Kramek. In the presence of a notary public, he made a report of the illegal activities he was forced to perform at the PHH. With the permission of Robert Z., below we quote extensive excerpts from his affidavit (in its original version).
AFFIDAVIT OF ROBERT Z. MADE IN THE PRESENCE OF A NOTARY PUBLIC
“In February 2019, upon recommendation by Joachim Brudziński and Maciej Wąsik, I was hired at the state-owned company operating under the name: Polski Holding Hotelowy Sp. z o.o., as Head of Security, which position has been created especially for me.
My key duties at this position included: supervising tenders and purchases carried out by the Company within the framework of the Anti-Corruption Shield, cooperation with the Internal Security Agency, Central Anticorruption Bureau, Military Counterintelligence Service, Central Bureau of Police Investigation and the Border Guard, obtaining sensitive information that may be of significance for the security of the State. (…)
Moreover, the scope of my duties also included supervision of the security staff at individual facilities, especially including hotels located in the immediate surroundings of the airports in Warsaw, Gdansk, Poznan, Katowice and Rzeszow.
I was assigned lead officers from the ISA and CAB who supervised my work as a personal source of information. According to the instructions, I was to provide them with far-reaching assistance in terms of obtaining information about hotel guests, providing access to surveillance records. It was understood beforehand that these records were to be transferred in violation of the GDPR and other provisions of the applicable law, and only when the services concerned deemed them useful the documents [permits] provided for by law were transferred [by the services] to the Company afterwards. This status quo was known to the Company CEO and its Chief Legal Counsel. According to the method of operation adopted, as it was stated: “officially neither the CEO nor the Legal Counsel had such knowledge” (…).
“Do I know who stays at our hotel?”
In autumn 2019 I was summoned to the office of our CEO, Mr George Marian Cristescu, who asked me if I knew who was staying in our hotel. This question did not surprise me much, as it was the standard for visitors from countries suspected of terrorism to stay overnight in transit at airport hotels. The Internal Security Agency has repeatedly asked us to provide a list of such guests (…) This has happened, for example, during visits by foreign guests, mass events or the issuing of BRAVO and CHARLIE alerts. However, the CEO’s question concerned one specific person, namely Mr Bartosz Kramek. I was familiar with his name, as Mr Kramek was well known in public and I remembered his speeches at protest actions in front of the Polish Parliament building and not only.
Our CEO suggested to me that I should report this to Mr Maciej Wąsik. At the time, Mr Wąsik was the Deputy Coordinator of Special Services. On the other day I went to see Mr. Wąsik and met him at his office in the Chancellery of the Prime Minister in Aleje Ujazdowskie Street. I informed him that Mr Bartosz Kramek used to be our regular guest at the Renaissance Hotel.
Minister Wąsik reacted extremely effusively to this news. He promptly contacted, I believe, the ISA coordinator and, after a phone call, I went with him to that person’s office. I was asked to wait in the hall and did not participate in the conversation between Mr Wasik and this officer, but after Mr Wasik had left I he informed me that I would be urgently contacted by someone from the ISA and he asked me very much to be of far-reaching assistance to this person. Indeed, on the same day I was contacted by an ISA officer and arranged to meet him somewhere in town.
The meeting, which involved two ISA officers and myself, took place the other day (…)I was informed that there was a request for me to inform Mr Kramek each time he arrived at the Renaissance Hotel, to provide information on the forms of payment made by him, his credit card details, and to enable, prior to Mr Kramek’s arrival at the hotel, the installation of technical operating aids. In the event that I was unable to facilitate the installation of such devices, I was asked to allow the room to be searched after Mr Kramek had left the hotel and, if this was not possible either, to personally search the room and report whether, for example, condom wrappers, medications, bottles of alcohol were found, i.e., things that could in any way discredit Mr Kramek, or speak of his bad habits, possible addictions, etc. At this time, the ISA officers were particularly active and frequently called me asking if anything about the “client” had been established. (…)
The overzealousness of the agents and the personal interest in the case on the part of Mr. Wąsik began to raise my suspicions, not only as to the legality of such actions, but their purpose as well. I started to pay close attention to the case and follow the archival reports on Mr. Kramek and it soon dawned on me that this was not about prosecuting a criminal but simply fighting an activist who publicly criticised the Law and Justice’s government. Then I realised that the further involvement in this matter was first of all, unlawful, and secondly simply immoral. So I started to avoid contact with the ISA and ignore their calls, but I was soon summoned by their “good policeman” who advised me that my attitude aroused reasonable suspicion that my further cooperation with the Company might not be a possible option. (…)
Being aware that I was caught up in a procedure that would sooner or later bring me to justice, I focused on making the ISA aware of the difficulty and ineffectiveness of such actions. So I informed the agents – which was a lie – that Mr Kramek had booked a room in the hotel. The Director had secured a specific room and the ISA, on the eve of Mr Kramek’s alleged arrival, had installed cameras and bugged the room. They soon realised that Mr Kramek would not be there because the ISA knew, I believe from other sources of information, and that Mr Kramek was abroad at the time. The agents had a grudge against me that I had misled them, which might have led them to an exposure. (…)They did not give up and were still hoping that they would eventually manage to record and eavesdrop on Mr Kramek while he was staying at the Hotel.
An operational transfer – “Seeking discrediting evidence about Mr Kramek”
At this time, there was another meeting in the so-called heart of the city with agents, where I was asked if it was true that the Company was managing the Regent Hotel (formerly known as Hyatt) in Warsaw. The hotel is located in the direct vicinity of the Russian Embassy and I was asked if it would be possible to accommodate Mr Kramek there. I asked how we would do this, as Mr Kramek always makes his bookings at the Renaissance Hotel only. The agents then told me that we would accept Mr Kramek’s booking at the Renaissance Hotel, and when he arrived at the hotel we would inform him that we were very sorry as there had been a mistake and his booking had been accidentally cancelled. In addition, we had to inform him that there was no room available at the hotel, but as an alternative – at the hotel’s expense – he will be transferred to a four-star Regent Hotel of the same standard and his accommodation charges be reduced by 80%. Moreover, at the Hotel’s expense, he will also be taken to the airport on the day of departure.
To the best of my knowledge, this was done solely so that Mr Kramek would be linked to, or photographed with some guest at the Regent Hotel. Here is an important piece of information: The Regent Hotel is in the immediate vicinity of the Russian Embassy and many people connected with the Embassy, Russian businesses or Russian citizens in general stay there overnight… Moreover, partly for historical reasons and perhaps out of habit, people from the so-called ‘underworld’ are often seen in this hotel. The hotel has a very small lobby where the bar is located. Due to the small amount of space at one table, guests can be seen drinking coffee together, for example, even though have absolutely nothing in common. It was in this hotel that the Central Anticorruption Bureau made arrests on more than one occasion, so the services knew this venue very well. Moreover, several employees of this hotel – of which I am absolutely sure – were collaborators of the ISA and CAB. One of such employees was known to have had suspicious contacts with Russian citizens, which the ISA knew about and blackmailed this employee with such knowledge. Hence, the ISA had everything it needed to create discrediting evidence about Mr Kramek. However, this occurrence has never happened, as the ISA eventually realised that I would not effectively participate in this cooperation, and my actions are more of a sham than of any use to them. (…)
I resigned from my job at the Company in November 2021 and made it clear why. I explicitly told them that I did not agree with the Company’s working methods. I also asked for my salary to be paid and for us to mutually recognise that our cooperation was non-existent, and that everything that happened in the course of this work was kept confidential. To my surprise, it turned out that, I think, in order to protect themselves, they began to seek discrediting evidence against me. It even came to the point that in November 2022, my house was searched for illegal weapons and ammunition.
“I feel obliged to say I am sorry”
I have long considered informing Mr Kramek that he has been the victim of illegal actions by the ISA. Finally, in November, I realised that it was not only pointless but potentially dangerous for me to stay silent. I am deeply convinced that sooner or later the ISA or Minister Wąsik would go so far as to carry out some kind of action against me aimed at intimidating me or causing me to keep quiet.
Until November 2021, when I thought about informing Mr Kramek, I considered it solely in moral terms. I am 50 and all my life, to the best of my ability, I have tried to be an honest person. I had a deep, abiding conviction that I had allowed myself to be framed in a situation that makes me feel remorseful. I am in no way intending to seek justification for myself. I am an adult and have been dealing with the services for 20 years, so I should know that what was being done was simply immoral. That is why I feel obliged to tell Mr Kramek that I am sorry. This is not easy. (…) Finally, I can only say that Mr Kramek’s case was not the only one, and to my knowledge, the ISA has taken many such actions against other people. There was even a moment in my conversation with ABW agents where they asked me whether people from the Civic Platform were staying at our hotels. When the agents saw the look on my face, they realised that my reaction was not appreciative and briefly changed the subject… I am convinced that if my reaction had been different, I would certainly have been asked to carry out exactly the kind of action against these people that was carried out against Mr Kramek”.
Robert Z.: I know they are collecting discrediting stuff against me
In the questions we forwarded to the Polish Hotel Holding last Friday, we did not mention Robert Z personally. We only wrote that: “The editorial team of Gazeta Wyborcza disposes testimony of a former PHH employee, who claims that the staff at PHH hotels regularly surveyed hotel guests identified by the ISA. This type of surveillance was to include the ongoing transferring of data to the ABW and other services regarding the stay of these guests, their bankcard numbers and so on. One such guest was Mr Bartosz Kramek. Question: Is this practice in line with the PHH’s policy? Was (is) the cooperation with the Internal Security Agency formalised?”
In their response, the PHH press office themselves invoke the name of their former Head of Security and tries to discredit his claims (reply in original): “The Polish Hotel Holding Group is aware of the fact that such fake news is being disseminated by Robert Z., a former employee of PHH, and the dissemination of this type of information is his retaliation for not meeting his unfounded demands towards the Company after the termination of our employment relationship”. Their response also states, “Robert Z. (…) threatens to disclose corporate secrets, and threatens to disseminate or disseminates fake news about the Group”. The Company adds that it “has already launched a number of legal steps and plans to launch further ones” against Robert Z. At the same time, it stipulates that: “the information about Mr Z’s actions against the Polish Hotel Holding Group is provided solely for the publisher’s knowledge and that it should not be publicised.”It is unclear how this is to be understood. Robert Z. says: – I know they will continue to collect compromising stuff against me and disseminate lies. But I stay calm and composed. I just tried to behave honestly and decently. I simply did not want to take part in breaking the law.
In other media:
- Polityka: How much the PiS government knows about us and what it can do to us. It has the most sensitive, intimate data (August 14, 2023)
- TOK.fm: The Hotel scandal. Why did the deputy Minister of the Interior and Administration order a search of Bartosz Kramek’s room? “He brazenly used the services” (May 26, 2023)
- Gazeta Wyborcza: Bartosz Kramek is seeking an apology and a compensation of PLN 1 million for being invigilated at hotels (May 23, 2023)
- Horeca Business Club: Bugged hotels of the Polish Hotel Holding: Request for a Council of Europe investigation (May 1, 2023)
- Radio Zet: Yet another bugging scandal? ‘Surveillance in hotels, searching for condoms’ (April 28, 2023)
- Gazeta Wyborcza: Poland’s government colluded with state-owned hotel chain to spy on political opponents (April 25, 2023)
- Gazeta Wyborcza: The Hotel Scandal. The Marriott Headquarters: “We are taking all efforts to ensure a warm welcome for everyone” (April 24, 2023)
- Gazeta Wyborcza: The hotel scandal. Threats against the whistleblower (April 22, 2023)
- Gazeta Wyborcza: Bugged hotels discussed in the Sejm. The whistleblower met with opposition MPs (April 21, 2023)
- Trybuna: The room service (April 20, 2023)
- Gazeta Wyborcza: Agnieszka Kublik: Stay alert while in a hotel bathroom! This is not a hitchcock movie, this is Kaczyński’s Poland (April 19, 2023)
- Gazeta Wyborcza: The hotel scandal. After the article published by ‘Wyborcza’, Kramek wants Wąsik and Brudziński prosecuted (April 18, 2023)
- Horeca Business Club: Bugged hotels of the Polish Hotel Holding Group (April 17, 2023)
- Onet: Bugged hotels. This is how special services reportedly spied on the opposition (April 17, 2023)
- Upday: Do Law and Justice party special services snoop on the opposition in hotels? (April 17, 2023)
- Gazeta Wyborcza: Bugged hotel rooms – Law and Justice recidivists spring to action (April 17, 2023)
- Wirtualna Polska: Surveillance of hotel guests? The Polish Hotel Holding responds and denies involvement (April 17, 2023)