The former mayor of Greece's second city, Salonika, and two of his top aides were sentenced to life in prison on Wednesday after being found guilty of embezzling almost 18 million euros, or $23.5 million, in public money — a rare conviction in a case involving the political corruption that has contributed to the country's dysfunction and economic decline.
A court in Salonika, a northern port city also known as Thessaloniki, 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 other former employees were acquitted after a five-month trial that began after an estimated shortfall of $68 million was found in the city's coffers. The court said there was proof that $23.5 million of that sum had been swindled.
In trial testimony last month, Mr. Saxonis admitted that the cash transactions had taken place in his office in "flimsy carrier bags" and said he had been taking orders from his superiors.
Mr. 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 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."
Mr. 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 Salonika with a drive for reform. On coming to power, Mr. Boutaris accused his predecessor of providing inaccurate financial figures.
The convictions on Wednesday prompted a frenzied response in the news media and on blogs, where many hailed the unusually severe sentences.
Few politicians have faced prosecution for graft and other financial crimes in Greece, and convictions are 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 a public reeling from nearly three years of austerity.
In September, the Greek authorities began investigating the bank accounts of more than 30 politicians to determine whether they should be charged with tax evasion and other crimes.
That inquiry has yet to yield any prosecutions, but last month, Greek lawmakers began an inquiry into George Papaconstantinou, a former Socialist finance minister, over his handling of a list of wealthy Greeks with Swiss bank accounts, a potential source of tax revenue that was never used by the authorities. That investigation began, prosecutors said, after the names of three of the former minister's relatives had been removed from the list.