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ANTI-CORRUPTION ACTIVISTS FORESEE DIFFICULTIES IN PASSING THE RESTRICTIVE LEGISLATION

Tougher conflict of interest blueprint in parliament

THE SPOUSES, children, and people sharing the households of public officials will have to declare their assets every year if a revised conflict of interest law passes in parliament next month.
The revision toughens existing restrictions and broadens the circle of officials obliged to comply with them to include the president, members of parliament, regional parliament officials, judges, heads of state companies, mayors, prosecutors, as well as the ombudsman (see sidebar).
The revision, approved unanimously by the cabinet on March 20, aims to prevent possible conflicts of interest among public officials while in office, and requires them to submit asset declarations for two years after leaving office.


LADISLAV Orosz (centre) proposed the legislation to parliament.
photo: TASR

THE SPOUSES, children, and people sharing the households of public officials will have to declare their assets every year if a revised conflict of interest law passes in parliament next month.

The revision toughens existing restrictions and broadens the circle of officials obliged to comply with them to include the president, members of parliament, regional parliament officials, judges, heads of state companies, mayors, prosecutors, as well as the ombudsman (see sidebar).

The revision, approved unanimously by the cabinet on March 20, aims to prevent possible conflicts of interest among public officials while in office, and requires them to submit asset declarations for two years after leaving office.

Public officials will be banned from involvement in private businesses, and asset declarations will be available to the public under the Freedom of Access to Information Law. Until now, officials have decided themselves whether to go public with asset declarations.

The proposed revision is a dramatic overhaul of the existing 1995 law, which was seen as ineffective by anti-corruption groups and members of the cabinet's Anti-Corruption Unit.

Although the law has been on the books for over six years, no public official has yet been charged with breaking it, despite the fact it is not unusual for Slovak MPs to be involved in private enterprises.

A 2001 report by the Parliamentary Committee for Incompatibility with the Function of State Officials, which was based on asset declarations submitted by some state officials in 2000, stated that 34 officials, including 20 MPs, two cabinet members, six deputy ministers, and six other officials, also worked for companies.

Fifty officials worked part-time for other organisations (such as universities), and 28 officials admitted they held shares in business enterprises.

The findings come at a time when public trust in public officials is at an all-time low. A study by state-run Slovak Radio last week found confidence levels in the cabinet and parliament well below 20 per cent. Recent surveys also suggest the public believes that corruption and clientelism is widespread in the public sector: According to a January 2002 survey by the Focus polling agency, 80 per cent of respondents thought that public officials gave precedence to private over public interests.

"Slovakia has a big problem with corruption, a fact which has been pointed out by several international institutions, including Nato and the European Commission," said Daniela Zemanovičová from the anti-corruption watch dog Transparency International Slovakia (TIS).

Supporters of the law - mostly NGOs - called it "groundbreaking", but said they expected it to encounter resistance among legislators.

"I'm sure party caucuses will resist the law. We expect voting obstructions. But those MPs who refrain from voting will have to be seen as people with a conflict of interest to hide," said Tomáš Kamenec from the Citizen and Democracy organisation.

Real Slovak National Party (PSNS) leader Ján Slota dismissed the revision as "worse than communism and fascism combined". According to the on-line business register he has no current business interests.

Should MPs pass the law, which requires a two-thirds majority, they will have to submit complete and extended property declarations by August 15 this year.

The majority of officials were diplomatic in noting worries about the proposed law.

Deputy Prime Minister for Legislation Ľubomír Fogaš, of the Democratic Left Party (SDĽ), said that "legislative barriers" in the law must be eliminated by parliament.

"We must for example, define the term public official. We must also put the proposal in line with the Constitution and other legislative norms," he said, adding that the parliament should also consider the "warning of the cabinet's legislative council that the quality of local town councils may be impaired by limiting the councillors' activities."

The revision also aims to stop MPs and members of regional elected parliaments from serving as mayors at the same time, and bans mayors from sitting on the boards of private companies.

Mayors from the Association of Towns and Cities (ZMOS) said the law would leave politics all the poorer. "I can't imagine how regional parliaments will improve without relying on grass roots information, that is, from the experiences of mayors," said ZMOS member and Pezinok Mayor Ivan Pessel, adding: "I don't say this because I myself am a member of the Bratislava region parliament."

But activists insist that a tougher law is crucial if officials are to be encouraged to defend public rather than private interests.

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