IN THE HARSHEST punishment ever handed down in a bribery case in this country, Slovakia's Special Court sentenced a Trnava region bureaucrat to seven years in prison and a Sk150,000 (€4,040) fine for demanding a Sk2.6 million (€70,270) bribe from a local businessman.
Ladislav Gál, the head of the Trnava land authority, had promised Miroslav Sýkora of the S-Real Holding company that he would have farming land rezoned as building sites, and then arrange for a construction permit to be issued for an industrial park in Šoporňa.
The prosecutor had originally demanded an eight-year sentence for Gál and a fine of Sk1.5 million (€40,000). However, even seven years sets a Slovak record for graft.
Gál has said he is innocent and has appealed the verdict. The case now goes before the Supreme Court.
Sýkora, who contacted police after Gál demanded the bribe, agreed to help entrap the bureaucrat, and in May 2005 gave Gál Sk1.5 million.
The police caught Gál with the money in his briefcase, but the official claimed it was for a deposit on the planned purchase of a house.
On the same day, Gál offered Sk300,000 to the mayor of Šoporňa to have 226,000 square metres of farmland rezoned for construction. The mayor, Stanislav Kiš, says he refused the bribe.
The Šoporňa industrial park project appears to be a troubled undertaking as the Special Court is now dealing with another related bribery case. The director of the district land office, Ladislav Borovszký, has also been accused of demanding bribe in connection with the industrial park.
Both Borovszký and Gál were nominated to their posts by the governmental Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK), which has washed its hands of them.
"The SMK immediately expelled these people. We regret they were ever members of the party," the SMK's Gyula Bárdos told The Slovak Spectator.
"I think other parties should proceed in a similar manner. There should be zero tolerance for corruption. I hope this will be a memento for everyone involved in similar conduct," he added.
The prosecutor on the Gál case said he considered the ruling a major step forward in the fight against corruption in Slovakia.
Corruption watchdog Transparency International agreed that tough penalties could help prevent graft.
"In the fight against corruption we must use both prevention and repression. Punishing people involved in corrupt conduct shows it is increasingly risky to be corrupt," Emília Sičáková-Beblavá, the head of Transparency International Slovakia (TIS), told The Slovak Spectator.
The NGO believes that Slovaks are becoming more willing to report cases of corruption to the police.
"This indicates a growing trust in the police, which is essential for identifying and exposing corruption," Sičáková-Beblavá said.
According to the TIS head, the use of undercover agents and the intense focus on corruption cases has helped expose instances of bribery.
She said it was important that people who are unwilling to give bribes have alternatives, and they know about these choices.
It may still take some time before Gál actually begins serving his sentence as his case makes its way through the sluggish court system. Two years after the police caught Gabriel Karlin, an MP for the opposition Movement for Democratic Slovakia, red-handed with a bribe of Sk500,000 (€13,000) in his briefcase, he remains free.
A district court ruled on May 9, 2005 that Karlin had accepted a bribe from businessman Juraj Hromada in November 2003 in return for persuading the former head of the Banská Bystrica regional government, Milan Mráz, to award Hromada a municipal construction contract for a school gym in Žiar nad Hronom.
However, the Banská Bystrica Regional Court on February 23 overturned the guilty verdict, faulting the lower court with regards mainly to Mráz, Karlin's alleged accomplice, whom the lower court freed for lack of evidence.
The regional court said there were too many unanswered questions in the case.
In its recent report, the World Bank estimated that Slovaks spend tens if not hundreds of billions of crowns every year on under-the-table payments and bribes.
The problem is not exclusively a Slovak one, as the report also showed that companies across the 10 new EU-member states spend five to seven percent of their annual revenues on bribery and extortion payments. The money goes to secure needed information and lucrative contracts, as well as "security" from organized crime groups, the bank said.
"The public believes there are still plenty of spheres affected by corruption, such as the health care sector or the courts. People also believe corruption is increasing at the regional and local government levels, in the business sector and within the public procurement process," Sičáková-Beblavá said.
Corrupt doctors have recently been in the headlines. In early February, the Special Court in Pezinok handed a Bratislava gynaecologist a 15-month suspended sentence for requesting a Sk7,000 (€189) bribe for delivering a couple's baby. The husband cooperated with the police.
In January alone, the Anti-Corruption Bureau filed bribery charges against 10 people who allegedly offered a total of Sk130,000 (€3,513) to police for not documenting their violations. People most frequently offer bribes to police at roadside checks.
Experts say that the media can play a crucial role in educating the public about the options people have when encountering bribery. Recently, a private television station broadcast a police bust of a corrupt ticket checker on the Košice bus system who demanded Sk500 from a passenger who did not have a ticket, instead of issuing the mandatory fine of over twice that amount.
6. Mar 2006 at 0:00 | Beata Balogová