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MP's shrug off report on illegal payments

Slovak state officials every day make an average of 28 illegal decisions in managing public money, according to a recent report by an official state watchdog. But while civil servants from cabinet ministers and senior court judges to petty bureaucrats committed a total of 10,471 legal infractions involving public money in 1999, no one seems to care.
The misdemeanours are tabulated in a report tabled at the May parliamentary session by the Supreme Audit Office (Najvyšsí kontrolný úrad - NKÚ - a parliament-appointed watchdog controlling the use of state money).
Most illegal acts documented consist of state officials breaking the principle of reasonable, transparent and efficient use of state money. No state institution emerged from the inspection with a clean record.


Parliamentary Speaker Jozef Migaš formally appointed Jozef Stahl head of the NKÚ watchdog on December 13, 1999. Less than six months later, state officials are shrugging off Stahl's report of wrongdoing.
photo: TASR

Slovak state officials every day make an average of 28 illegal decisions in managing public money, according to a recent report by an official state watchdog. But while civil servants from cabinet ministers and senior court judges to petty bureaucrats committed a total of 10,471 legal infractions involving public money in 1999, no one seems to care.

The misdemeanours are tabulated in a report tabled at the May parliamentary session by the Supreme Audit Office (Najvyšsí kontrolný úrad - NKÚ - a parliament-appointed watchdog controlling the use of state money).

Most illegal acts documented consist of state officials breaking the principle of reasonable, transparent and efficient use of state money. No state institution emerged from the inspection with a clean record. The Office of Government, for instance, paid 29,000 Slovak crowns ($612) for the purpose of "representation" without having the right to do so, and also bought two airplane tickets for a person who was not a member of an official delegation (172,000 crowns, or $3,628). The office also illegally hired a public opinion poll agency to conduct a poll, and paid 1.4 million crowns on a contract signed for 350,000 crowns.

Even the Constitutional Court, Slovakia's most august, was in the report. The court paid the Atlantel company 93,000 crowns for communication equipment maintanance, even though another company was able to perform the work for 21,000. Ministries, regional state offices and state-funded media (Slovak Television, Slovak Radio) wasted public money in the same ways. According to the NKÚ report, 0.4% of decisions made by civil servants involving public money were taken in conflict with the law.

The NKÚ found far greater cheating among private sector taxpayers. Because it had only 219 inspectors, the NKÚ was able to check up on only 5.2% of all taxpayers - but found that almost 50% of them had cheated on their taxes. The watchdog estimated that as a result of this "poor tax discipline," the state budget by September 30, 1999 had been bilked of 53.8 billion crowns in revenues, almost 30% of the 180 billion crowns in budget income expected for 1999.

Despite the alarming numbers, however, MP's and state officials seemed to take the report in stride.

"It happens every year," said Róbert Fico, an independent MP for the leading non-parliamentary party Smer, on May 10. "Parliamentarians will read the report, there will be a short discussion and that's it. The waters will close again."

State officials were equally blithe. Ivan Mikloš, Deputy Prime Minister for Economy, said at a May 10 press conference that corruption was "a very common issue in all transition countries." When asked by The Slovak Spectator about the NKÚ report, he said "I believe the National Programme for Fighting Corruption, initiated by Prime Minister Dzurinda, will help a lot in this."

One of the reasons for the apparent indifference may be that the crimes catalogued in the report were not committed only in 1999, but in previous years as well. NKÚ spokesman Marián Varga explained that some crimes committed by the 1994-98 Mečiar government had only come to light last year, and thus were included in the current report. The current government, however, is understandably reluctant to take the blame for past wrongdoing, which include all of the Office of Government infractions listed.

Tibor Tóth, chief of the Office of Government, added that part of the reluctance to act on the report lay in the difficulty of proving guilt. "I don't think we can punish the wife of then Deputy Prime Minister Sergej Kozlík for travelling to Washington and Frankfurt [in 1998] with her husband," he said. "No law allows wives of state officials to travel at state expense with their husbands. From this point of view it was illegal. On the other side, the government made a collective decision allowing Mrs. Kozlíková to travel with her husband. So who is at fault?"

The other reason behind the indifference may be that international criticism of corruption in Slovakia tends to focus on areas affecting foreign investors and trading partners rather than on how Slovak state officials handle domestic taxpayers' money. Nicola Ehlermann, an administrator with the OECD's (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) anti-corruption unit, said her unit was "quite satisfied" with the progress Slovakia was making in implementing OECD documents and charters, and that "we are focusing much more on the trans-national level, because that's what's important for our organisation."

But while international groups may not be disturbed by daily corruption among state officials, many Slovaks say it is an ongoing problem that must be rooted out.

"Corruption in Slovakia is doing just as well under the current government as it did under the former one," said Fico, who is trying to carve out a political niche for himself as a clean-hands politician not affiliated with the country's present or past leaderships. "This problem has to be solved by the next generation. We should learn from such countries as Finland, where the situation is totally different than it is here."

Jozef Majský, a major Slovak financier who has admitted to supporting several current Slovak parties with the millions he made on the import/export business, agreed that corruption was still thriving in the country. "If each state official signing a state contract wants at least 5% of the amount to find its way into his pocket, thatşs corruption," Majský said, adding that he himself paid such bribes "not occasionally but almost every day."

Dzurinda's anti-corruption programme notwithstanding, NGO activists believe that an important part of the solution to official corruption - free access to information - is already on the way. "I believe our new law on access to public information would help a lot in minimizing corruption in state institutions and offices" said Andrej Bartosiewicz, head of the Association for Local Democracy Support. "This law may be approved by the end of this month. But MP's will have to be brave to approve such a law, because we have never had such an act in the Slovak legislature."

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