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POLICE LAUNCH INVESTIGATION INTO STATE AGENCY ACCUSED OF MISMANAGING EU FUNDS

Deleted data spells trouble for agency

ALTHOUGH a state agency that distributed money to a private company under opaque circumstances got the funds returned, the agency's problems are far from over. On the contrary, they seem to have increased.

ALTHOUGH a state agency that distributed money to a private company under opaque circumstances got the funds returned, the agency's problems are far from over. On the contrary, they seem to have increased.

The transfer of Sk1.5 billion (€40,000) to a Košice-based company, Cassovia BIC, by the National Agency for the Development of Small- and Medium-Sized Businesses, was one of the reasons behind the fall of former Economy Minister Pavol Rusko.

Bystrík Berthoty, who took over in late August as the agency's director after the previous head, Ľudovít Balco, was fired, said he found the agency in "extreme disorder".

Berthoty accused his predecessor of intentionally deleting important data from agency computers before leaving the agency for good.

Finance Minister Ivan Mikloš, temporarily charged with managing the Economy Ministry, confirmed that the agency's computers were reformatted and data lost.

"I can confirm that the new director [Berthoty] has found problems with the agency's computer archives," said Peter Papanek, Mikloš' advisor.

He told The Slovak Spectator that Berthoty is having difficulties figuring out how the agency functioned since so much data has been erased.

The Finance Ministry assumes that the erased files could have provided clues to the suspicious money transfer.

Cassovia BIC won an international tender to use EU venture capital on a project to support small- and medium-sized businesses in regions of Slovakia with high unemployment. The ruling coalition partners claim that Pavol Rusko knew about the transfer and approved the transaction without the consent of the agency's board.

Mikloš ordered an investigation into the money transfer after taking control of the economy ministry.

Concerns instantly emerged that the case could damage Slovakia's credit with EU institutions.

Slovakia's deputy to the European Parliament, Monika Beňová, also a member of opposition party Smer, told the Slovak media on August 29 that the relevant EU bodies would be paying more attention to the flow of EU funds managed by the National Agency for the Development of Small- and Medium-Sized Businesses. She hinted that others would lose their jobs over the Cassovia scandal.

Ministry officials suggest that Beňová is overreacting.

"European institutions have not initiated any controls as of yet. However, the Finance Ministry and the Public Procurement Office have started checking the agency's history. We really want to know how this agency functioned to the very detail, how it was managed, how the payments were made," Papanek told the Spectator.

The office of the deputy prime minister for EU affairs has not registered increased EU interest in the agency, either.

"We do not have any signals that the European Commission or any of its affiliates have taken action or requested information from Slovak institutions," said Martin Urmanič, spokesperson for Deputy Prime Minister for EU Affairs Pál Csáky.

"I think that in the eyes of our EU partners, we continue being a solid and trustworthy partner. We do not perceive the [Cassovia] case as something that has damaged Slovakia's credit. But certainly, we are monitoring the situation and if any questions emerge, we will communicate with the appropriate EU institutions and provide them with explanation," Urmanič told the Spectator.

In 2001, a scandal over the distribution of EU funds cost the former director of foreign aid at the Slovak Cabinet Office, Roland Tóth, his job. Tóth is said to have benefited in exchange for helping firms close to him participate and succeed in European Commission tenders. EU officials briefly froze funds to Slovakia over the matter.

Cassovia BIC returned the venture capital on August 25, including the earned interest for four days. "We want to dispel suspicions over any potential misuse of the finances received. The company believes that after the relevant bodies investigate the case, it will be permitted to continue with the venture capital project," Cassovia BIC's chief executive, Ivan Pezlár, told the news wire SITA.

"We entered a public tender officially announced by the agency in all European Union states to become an administrator of a venture capital fund," Pezlár said.

Rusko denies any irregularities in the way the firm obtained the money. Rusko also claimed that the agency's board did know about the money transfer.

A member of the agency's board of trustees, László Pomothy, also a member of the Hungarian Coalition Party, claims that the transfer was carried out without the knowledge of the board.

Pomothy said the trustees only agreed to the programme description, instructing the agency to elaborate and prepare necessary documentation in order to launch the project in December, but that they did not give the green light to the transfer itself.

Rusko installed the previous head of the agency, Ľudovít Balco, to his post. The agency falls under the jurisdiction of the Economy Ministry.

New Citizens' Alliance boss Pavol Rusko keeps saying the whole case is politically motivated with an aim to discredit him.

Slovakia's anti-corruption police units have already started investigating the case. They will decide whether to initiate a criminal prosecution within 30 days.

Finance Minister Mikloš said that he would make a criminal complaint in association with the disorder and deleted data at the National Agency for the Development of Small- and Medium-Sized Businesses.

In his dual role as Finance and temporary Economy Minister, Mikloš will address the most pressing issues.

"The minister understands that his position as temporary and he will only treat those problems that call for immediate action. One of these pertains to the KIA investment. The minister will submit detailed information on the KIA investment and a set of proposed solutions," Papanek said.

Mikloš is not expected to intervene in the privatization of Slovakia's dominant power producer.


Magdalena MacLeod
contributed to this report

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