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POLICE CRUSADE AGAINST CORRUPTION BRINGS MORE HIGH-PROFILE RESULTS

Top local official arrested taking Sk1 million bribe

A HIGH-standing regional politician was caught in the act while taking Sk1 million (€24,700) in cash, a sum believed by the police to be a fraction of a bribe totalling Sk18 million (€444,000) as payment for a city contract for the construction of tenement flats in the eastern Slovak city of Košice.
Police arrested Eugen Čuňo, Košice deputy mayor, along with a lawyer named only as Ladislav P, and businessman Viktor K on March 10. Čuňo is believed to have promised to help the construction firm Kame-Slovakia Group get the city job, worth Sk181 million (€4.47 million), said Interior Minister Vladimír Palko at a press conference on March 11.

A HIGH-standing regional politician was caught in the act while taking Sk1 million (€24,700) in cash, a sum believed by the police to be a fraction of a bribe totalling Sk18 million (€444,000) as payment for a city contract for the construction of tenement flats in the eastern Slovak city of Košice.

Police arrested Eugen Čuňo, Košice deputy mayor, along with a lawyer named only as Ladislav P, and businessman Viktor K on March 10. Čuňo is believed to have promised to help the construction firm Kame-Slovakia Group get the city job, worth Sk181 million (€4.47 million), said Interior Minister Vladimír Palko at a press conference on March 11.

Čuňo, nominated to the post by the ruling Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) party, is the second high-ranking politician to be caught in a corruption scam in a relatively short period of time.

In late 2003, MP Gabriel Karlin from the opposition party Movement for a Democratic Slovakia was arrested shortly after taking a Sk500,000 (€12,300) bribe along with leading Banská Bystrica regional representative Milan Mráz. The two had promised the businessman a city deal for building a school gym.

Karlin, who was recently released from custody and returned to parliament, is awaiting a court trial in his bribery case. He refused to comment on the accusations but he said that he had "never in my life taken a bribe".

SDKÚ party representatives said in an official statement on March 11 that the party "cares that the case is investigated thoroughly. Political consequences will then be carried out by party bodies on the respective [regional] level."

A court in Bratislava ruled on March 13 that Čuňo and the other two culprits be kept in custody. All three have appealed the decision.

Minister Palko said that the police suspected Čuňo and his culprits had already cashed in Sk9 million (€222,000), money that the firm's representative, Viktor K, allegedly handed over.

Viktor K also acted as a police agent and witness in the March 10 arrest.

"We think that the million-crown bribe was probably to be camouflaged as a loan. Along with the money, police apprehended a [written] confirmation of the loan as well as a receipt verifying the return of the loan. Paradoxically, the receipt was dated April 28, 2004," Palko said.

Čuňo, 50, was one of the founders of regional Košice branch of the SDKÚ. Until his arrest he had worked as deputy chairman of the regional party branch. In June 2003 he started working as Košice's vice-mayor. His colleagues in Košice confirmed that before entering the public post he had run a private real estate company.

Čuňo's party colleagues were surprised to hear the allegations. MP Karol Mitrík, head of the regional SDKÚ branch, insisted that, "if his guilt is proven, we will take [the appropriate] political action."

According to observers, the recent case has reaffirmed the feeling that the police are taking an uncompromising stance against corruption, notwithstanding politicians and well-known public figures regardless of whether they belong to the coalition or opposition political forces.

Palko, meanwhile, presented the improving results of his ministry's fight on corruption. In 1999, Palko said, police brought 14 bribery cases to state prosecutors. Three years later, 139 were revealed and in 118 charges were laid. Palko took over the ministerial seat at the end of 2002. In 2003 police revealed 147 cases and brought 95 to prosecutors.

"For the first two months of this year alone, the police revealed 48 cases and delivered 36 of them to prosecutors," Palko said.

Observers have welcomed the ministry's results but noted that police work was "only a part, although necessary, of the elimination of corruption," said the president of Transparency International Slovakia, Emília Sičáková-Beblavá.

"Police work is necessary but we see much space for improvement on the side of the attorneys and judges. Without an appropriate punishment for corruption it does not make sense," Sičáková-Beblavá told The Slovak Spectator.

She said that the latest case in Košice had overthrown "the myth commonly spread in Slovakia that local administration is not involved [in bribery].

"Apart from approving an effective law on conflict of interest we should also direct efforts towards building checks and balances that would limit the space for the corruption of municipal politicians. They too work with large amounts of public money and without proper control mechanisms, and will be tempted [by corrupt practices]," she said.

EU officials, too, continue to stress that fighting corruption in the public sphere must remain a priority. Slovakia, along with another nine states, is set to become a member of the EU in May this year. Even the most recent report on the readiness of the new members has mentioned the need to root out bribery.

European Member of Parliament Elmar Brok recently stated that, "widely spread corruption remains a cause for serious concern." Slovakia, along with Latvia, Poland, Slovenia, and Hungary were among the five states that were specifically challenged to take steps against bribery.

"[Bribery] is a cancerous tumour in the body of society that often reaches to the highest places," Brok said.

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