Czech Prime Minister Petr Necas called Friday for a thorough and quick investigation into allegations by the former U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic, who has accused the country's former defense minister of asking for a bribe.
William Cabaniss was quoted in Friday's edition of the major newspaper Mlada Fronta Dnes as saying Martin Bartak asked for money during a February 2008 meeting near Washington D.C., where Bartak was with an official Czech delegation.
Bartak was then deputy defense minister; he later served as defense minister and currently is deputy finance minister, in charge of fighting corruption.
Necas said he considered the allegations "serious" because the scandal could harm the country's relations with a close ally.
"A thorough investigation has to be carried out and must be done quickly," Necas said.
Bartak denied any wrongdoing in a statement Friday and called the allegations "absurd."
He said had been given an unpaid leave at his request because he didn't want the scandal to damage the government.
"I am sure I will be able to return to work soon," Bartak said. He said he planned to take unspecified legal action against those who are behind the campaign against him.
The major opposition Social Democrats called on Necas Friday to fire Bartak immediately.
Cabaniss, ambassador to Prague in 2003-06, has been chairman of the supervisory board of Czech truck maker Tatra AS. Cabaniss said Bartak offered him his help to solve the company's dispute with its supplier Praga, which threatened a $150 million deal for Tatra to deliver trucks for Czech military.
"At some point of the conversation he said for certain amount of money, I don't remember the exact amount, the problems between Tatra and Praga can be solved," Cabaniss was quoted as saying.
"I didn't respond. I thought it was a very unusual and out of order conversation from someone at the defense ministry," Cabaniss was quoted as saying in the newspaper interview. "I walked away and had no further conversation with him."
Duncan Sellars, the chief of Tatra's U.S. branch, who was also present at the meeting, said Bartak asked for several million dollars.
Cabaniss was not available for comment Friday, Tatra spokesman Vladimir Bystrov said. He said Cabaniss and Sellars have cooperated with local police and testified Thursday.
The defense ministry has been under increasing fire recently for non-transparent ways of acquiring military equipment.
Necas said his government will stop such practices.
Among other cases, Czech authorities asked the United States in August to help with a corruption inquiry into a lucrative 2002 deal to buy 24 JAS-39 Gripen jet fighters from BAE Systems.