ATHENS — The former mayor of Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest city, and two of his top aides were sentenced to life in prison Wednesday after being found guilty of embezzling almost $23.5 million in state funds, a rare conviction in a case involving the political corruption that has contributed to the country’s dysfunction and economic decline.
A court in the northern port city found that the local authorities had set up an ‘‘embezzlement machine,’’ and that Vassilis Papageorgopoulos, a prominent conservative who served two terms as mayor from 1999 to 2010, had been aware of the whole plan but had stayed on the sidelines, feigning ignorance. The scheme was conceived by Michalis Lemousias, a general secretary of the city administration, who operated with Panagiotis Saxonis, the city’s treasurer, the court found.
Two other former treasury officials were given terms of 15 and 10 years, and 13 former employees were acquitted after a five-month trial that began after an estimated shortfall of $68 million in the city’s coffers was discovered. The court said there was proof that of that sum, $23.5 million had been stolen. In trial testimony last month, Saxonis admitted that the cash transactions had taken place in his office in ‘‘flimsy carrier bags.’’ He said he had been taking orders from his superiors.
Papageorgopoulos, 65, is a prominent member of the conservative New Democracy party, which leads Greece’s current fragile coalition government. He insisted that he had nothing to do with the embezzlement, and he and his former aides are expected to appeal.
‘‘I am sure that certain people will die feeling remorse,’’ he said after hearing the verdict, prompting the presiding judge to remark, ‘‘At any rate, that won’t be us.’’
Papageorgopoulos, a former sprinter and medical student nicknamed the Flying Doctor, was succeeded as mayor in December 2010 by Yiannis Boutaris, a left-leaning winemaker who has shaken up Thessaloniki with a drive for reform. Upon coming to power, Boutaris accused his predecessor of providing inaccurate financial figures.
The convictions prompted a frenzied response in the media and on blogs, where many hailed the severe sentences.
Few politicians have faced prosecution for graft and other financial crimes in Greece, and convictions are extremely rare. Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’s governing coalition has pledged to crack down on the deep-rooted corruption among the political and business elite that has angered the public.