A talk-show host turned political star was ousted as Lithuania's parliament speaker Tuesday amid a scandal sparked by a photo of him hobnobbing with a member of a deadly criminal gang.
Arunas Valinskas, a charismatic TV satirist who once hosted the Lithuanian version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," was thrown out of the powerful post in a 95-20 vote that included members of his own National Resurrection Party.
A leading daily paper published a front-page story in July that accused Valinskas of ties with an organized-crime syndicate in Kaunas, Lithuania's second-largest city. An picture of him shaking hands with a member of the so-called Daktarai Gang accompanied the article.
The gang is responsible for several cases of homicide, robbery and auto theft in Lithuania and other countries, according to prosecutors. Its leader, Henrikas Daktaras, fled Lithuania last year and was arrested in Bulgaria last week.
When asked about the photo, Valinskas, who was educated as a lawyer, said he knows many people and often shakes even strangers'
"I can name other well known people who are pictured with members of Daktarai group, but this does not mean that they have ties with mafia," he said.
Politicians - including newly elected President Dalia Grybauskaite - demanded his resignation but Valinskas, 42, refused to go.
"I did not have any ties with organized criminal structures," he told lawmakers before the no-confidence vote.
"My only mistake was that I was completely open to the people, and never divided them between good and bad ones," he added.
Valinskas created his populist party in early 2008 and younger voters flocked to support it, helping the National Resurrection Party finish second in October elections.
Supporters had hopes that the TV luminary would crack down on government graft and help ease economic turmoil - the economy is shrinking at a 22 percent annual rate.
But then the oddities starting occurring.
When lawmakers asked Valinskas for his economic program, he read the Ten Commandments as "the best program for every decent human being."
Some Lithuanians, troubled by their country's economic prospects, said they are glad Valinskas will be replaced.
"Keeping him in this position was a very harmful experience. Now that he is gone, Lithuania has a chance to stabilize situation in Parliament," said political analyst Vladimiras Liaucius. "But the damage, done to this institution will remain in people's minds for a long time."
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