The cabinet of Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda promised on January 26 to return almost three million Slovak crowns ($700,000) in bonuses that ministers received at the end of 1999 after it was discovered the payments were made illegally.
The decision was prompted by a small article in the January 20-26 edition of the influential weekly paper Domino Fórum, in which private lawyer Ivan Habaj pointed out that 'constitutional representatives' like cabinet members and parliamentary speakers had no legal right to pay themselves bonuses under the terms of a 1993 law. The payment of bonuses is common in lower civil service ranks, which are governed by a 1992 law allowing the practice.
Following the publication of Habaj's opinion, the cabinet quickly assembled a group of legal experts to give advice on the matter, and on being told that Habaj was right, cabinet voted to return the 134,000 crowns ($3,116) each member had received last December. "Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda thanks those citizens who warned through the media that bonuses paid to government members were done illegally," said a terse cabinet communiqué on January 26.
While most cabinet ministers put a good face on the situation and agreed to return the sums promptly, several members said they would need help since they had already spent the money. "I'll repay the bonus, but I have a little problem," said Deputy Prime Minister for European Integration Pavol Hamžík. "I've already given the money to charity, so I'll have to ask for a payment calendar."
"It's a painful situation, and I hope the guilty party will apologise to the government for handing out illegal bonuses which didn't belong to us," said Defence Minister Pavol Kanis on January 26.
The first - and so far only - head to roll for the embarrassing mistake was that of Tibor Neuročný, chief of the personnel department at the Government Office. But as the days passed, documents published in the media showed that similar illegal bonuses had been paid by the former Mečiar government as well; an average of 160,000 per cabinet member in 1996, 187,000 in 1997 and 152,000 in the election shortened-year of 1998.
Katarína Tóthová, a former Deputy Prime Minister in the 1994-1998 Mečiar government, said she could scarcely credit that the practice of giving out bonuses was illegal. Governments in Slovakia had received bonuses both before and after 1989, she said. "I can't believe that in all that time no one asked for a legal standpoint. I always took my bonus, and I never asked how much they should be giving me."
In fact, a legal analysis was done in 1996 by the Supreme Control Office, which warned then-Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar in writing that the payment of bonuses to constitutional representatives was against the law. Štefan Balejík, then-head of the Control Office, wrote Mečiar on May 10, 1996 that after studying the 1994 bonuses, his office had discovered that "government members were paid bonuses in conflict with the law. This situation happened again in 1995."
Asked why the former Prime Minister had defied the law as well as the Control Office viewpoint, HZDS spokesman Marián Kardoš said that "we can't respond to what is printed in the press. We don't have an official statement."
But a partial answer as to why the Control Office had not pursued the matter was to be found in a document published in the Sme daily newspaper on January 31, which showed that Balejík had paid himself an illegal bonus of 50,000 crowns in November 1999, two months before leaving office; his two deputies had also received 45,000 crowns each. What is more, Balejík had paid out the money after being warned in writing by his wife, Tax Office head Eva Gašparová, that the bonuses were illegal. "Yes, I am forbidding you to pay the bonuses," she wrote in pen at the bottom of a letter dated November 10.
The current head of the Control Office, Jozef Stahl, informed Radio Twist on January 31 that he had been unaware of Balejík's actions. He added that the Control Office could not force the members of previous governments to repay their bonuses, but that it could require the Government Office to take steps to prevent a similar situation from occuring in the future.
-from press reports
7. Feb 2000 at 0:00 | Tom Nicholson