What ever happened to those illegal bonuses paid out this year - and in years past - to cabinet ministers? The answer is that while current government members are returning the cash - albeit slowly - members of the former Vladimír Mečiar government are taking a more defiant stance.
At the beginning of the year 2000, all 15 cabinet ministers and 4 deputy prime ministers were given 'Christmas' bonuses of approximately 102,000 Slovak crowns ($2,318), only to be told by an independent lawyer writing for the weekly newspaper Domino Fórum that they had been illegally granted.
Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda immediately released a statement thanking citizens for pointing out the illegality of the bonuses, and promising that the ministers would return the money to state coffers. However, to date only four government officials - Foreign Affairs Minister Eduard Kukan, Economy Minister Ľubomír Harach, Defense Minister Pavol Kanis and Education Minister Milan Ftáčnik - have done so in full. Other current government representatives are paying back their bonuses in monthly installments of about 10,000 crowns ($227), said the spokesmen of the various government ministries.
In their defence, coalition officials said they had been unaware that the bonuses violated the law, pointing out that governments under the leadership of Vladimír Mečiar had also issued such bonuses. Indeed, the three time ex-prime minister was arrested only last April 20 when masked commando units used explosives to blow down his front door and formally charge him with granting the illegal bonuses.
"We had no reason to believe that the bonuses were illegal," said Tibor Tóth, head of the Government Office. "The practice had been here since 1993, and only later did we find out that Mečiar had received a letter from [the then-head of the Supreme Control Office Štefan] Balejík, saying that there was no legal basis for granting ministers such bonuses."
Legal experts said that the bonuses had been allowed in the past because Slovak legislature did not specifically prohibit the practice, a "hole" they agreed should be dealt with as soon as possible. "I agree that highly qualified, responsible and demanding work should be rewarded by financial amou0nts comparable to those of other states," wrote independent lawyer Ivan Habaj in his article entitled 'Illegal Bonuses' for Domino Fórum on January 21. "I just want to note that such steps should be carried out within the rule of the law."
Cabinet, meanwhile, said that it was taking steps towards fixing the law. "We are working on an amendment to the 1993 law [which deals with government employee wages and under which the bonuses were issued, even though the law makes no mention of bonuses]," said Tóth.
He added: "While current government officials have agreed to return their bonuses at once or in monthly instalments, former government members are reluctant to do so." Tóth said that his office had sent letters asking former cabinet members to return the bonuses, but that none had yet done so.
Former Finance Minister and HZDS member Miroslav Maxon said that he and his party-mates would not return their bonuses until a court ordered them to do so.
"If the courts rule that the bonuses were illegal, we'll return them," he said "But the letter they [Government Office] sent us said that we should return the money 'based on the findings of an expert commission'. But we could have established our own expert commission which would have said the bonuses were not illegal. Therefore, we'll only respect a court decision."
Mečiar, for his part, said that the April 20 police action against him had been "wrong", and that he would file a complaint with a civil court for damages to his property from the police raid. He added that the case against him was purely political: "There is nothing I can be prosecuted for," he said June 16.