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Draft of conflict-of-interests law ready

A DRAFT version of a rewritten conflict-of-interest law that aims to introduce severe sanctions for MPs and state officials who are found misusing their posts has been described as "strict and good" by Justice Minister Daniel Lipšic.
A commission composed of 17 members - including the minister, coalition and opposition MPs, and anti-corruption watchdog organisations - recently presented the draft to the public, hoping the law will be passed by parliament in May and take effect in July.
If approved, the draft will require MPs and state officials, including municipal leaders and their close relatives, to regularly publish property declarations.

A DRAFT version of a rewritten conflict-of-interest law that aims to introduce severe sanctions for MPs and state officials who are found misusing their posts has been described as "strict and good" by Justice Minister Daniel Lipšic.

A commission composed of 17 members - including the minister, coalition and opposition MPs, and anti-corruption watchdog organisations - recently presented the draft to the public, hoping the law will be passed by parliament in May and take effect in July.

If approved, the draft will require MPs and state officials, including municipal leaders and their close relatives, to regularly publish property declarations.

It would also introduce post-employment limitations that would prevent officials from working for a business or private entity they had helped while in office for an undefined period of time after leaving their public posts.

The majority of coalition and opposition MPs declared their support for the anti-graft legislation, which is part of the cabinet programme. For the legislation to be approved, a so-called constitutional majority of 90 out of the total 150 MPs must vote in favour of the draft.

The draft updates an existing conflict-of-interest law, effective since 1995, which has been described many times as vague and "toothless" by politicians and observers.

Lipšic said on March 19: "The draft is strict and good, and I hope that it will be acceptable in parliament as well."

Some opposition politicians have already pledged their support for the law.

According to Igor Federič, who is an opposition Smer party MP and head of the parliamentary committee for conflict of interests of public officials, it would be "very remarkable progress" if the law is approved.

"I think the draft will be supported by all 25 Smer MPs," said Federič.

If state officials are found in conflict with the law, they will face penalties of up to Sk5 million (120,000 euro) and may lose their MP mandate. If suspicions arise, the conflict-of-interests committee may start proceedings against the official as soon as the move is supported by one third of the committee's members. That, Lipšic said, was a tool to prevent possible political blockage of proceedings.

"This is to ensure that the ruling coalition will not be able to block cases involving coalition politicians," Lipšic said.

Following this initial committee procedure, parliament would have to approve sanctions against the official, for which a simple majority of the total 150 MPs would be needed. The Constitutional Court would handle cases involving the stripping of parliamentary mandates.

There have been concerns, however, that MPs might not support the draft law in the end, despite widespread support for the legislation now. A similar draft was discussed, and rejected, by parliament last May.

"We fear that last year's scenario could repeat itself. After all, the draft is quite strict and it is directed mainly against those who will be voting on the legislation," said Emília Sicáková, head of the Transparency International Slovakia watchdog.

"There is rather a high risk that the legislation will not be approved," she said.

It also remains unclear whether the law, if approved, would extend to municipal officials. Local media have reported that some municipalities object to being included in the legislation. The Justice Ministry has prepared two versions of the draft - one that includes municipal politicians and one that only covers state officials and MPs.

Observers say that transparency and effective control of municipalities is vital, mainly due to the ongoing decentralisation of state powers to municipal authorities.

"I think municipalities should be included in the law because they will be given more powers and finances. They will be working with budgets worth billions and therefore [systems] should be transparent," Lipšic said.

Milan Muška, deputy chairman of the Association of Slovak Towns and Cities (ZMOS) and mayor of the eastern Slovak town of Vranov nad Topľou denied the media rumours and said his organisation supported the law.

"It is not true that we are against the law. Although we have some objections to it, we are not opposed to the law as a whole at all," Muška said.

He said that ZMOS was opposing a clause in the draft that banned municipal officials from being members of the supervisory boards of any companies, to prevent a possible clash of interests.

He said that a number of municipalities had launched their own joint stock companies and limited-liability firms, mainly dealing in such activities as municipal waste disposal and water management.

"I cannot imagine how the realisation of a municipality's shareholders rights in such firms would be secured if local officials could not be members of the supervisory boards," he said.

Roman Vavrík of the ruling Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) said recently that his party believed that municipal officials should not fall under this legislation at all because it would deter a number of local politicians from entering municipal service.

"Today it is already difficult to find candidates for municipal MPs or mayors," Vavrík told the daily Pravda.

However, many municipal officials agree that public control is necessary in local politics, as it is at the national level.

"We are public officials like all others, and because there are problems with corruption in Slovakia, measures such as submitting property declarations should be a norm for all public officials," Muška said.

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