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QUESTIONS ON FUNDING WILL NOT LEAD TO OUSTER OF AGRICULTURE MINISTER

Minister's ethics doubted but Simon keeps top post

ZSOLT Simon defended his job as agriculture minister despite questions over money he received in 2003 on behalf of his former agricultural firm Agrotrade.

ZSOLT Simon defended his job as agriculture minister despite questions over money he received in 2003 on behalf of his former agricultural firm Agrotrade.

When Simon's company, which he has since sold, received the Sk8 million (€205,000) in agricultural funding, Simon was head of the state department.

An angry Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda demanded an explanation from the minister. The Hungarian Coalition Party, of which Simon is a member, also requested answers.

Despite media pressure and the parallels of Simon's story to that of recently resigned Labour Minister Ľudovít Kaník, the agriculture minister kept his seat - as well as the confidence of the prime minister and the SMK.

Kaník stepped down voluntarily at the beginning of October after media revealed that his family firm had applied for a European Union grant worth Sk22 million (€557,000) through a local tourism agency. The money was meant for the reconstruction of his family-owned hotel. Neither Kaník nor his family firm received the funds.

Simon insists his case is different. According to him, agricultural funding is distributed to all applicants who meet certain criteria. As such, there is no way individual personalities can interfere with the decision-making process in approving funding.

According to Dzurinda, the fact that Simon applied for funding on behalf of Agrotrade is an ethical dilemma.

"Minister Simon's problem is an ethical one. Companies whose owners are cabinet members always provoke uncertainty as to whether a subjective aspect did or did not influence the approval process," the prime minister told a press conference on October 24 following a meeting with Simon.

Dzurinda insisted, however, that Simon maintains his trust and that the issue of discipline now rests with the SMK. Ironically, the prime minister called on Simon to handle the issue pertaining to Deputy Agriculture Minister Marián Radošovský. Radošovský's company, Farm, also applied for agricultural funding through the ministry and received Sk2 million (€64,300) in 2003.

The SMK does not appear willing to lose its minister over this ethical dilemma.

SMK Chairman Béla Bugár admitted that in the future the party would try to avoid similar problems but said it would not remove Simon from his post.

At a press conference on October 24, Bugár and Simon both pressed the point that Simon tried to sell Agrotrade as quickly as possible after becoming agriculture minister but that the sale did not go as smoothly as expected. Simon said that if Agrotrade had not received funding, it likely would have failed.

"If the firm did not receive funding, [Agrotrade] would not have had a chance of surviving," Simon said.

Simon admitted that as a minister, he was in charge of approving the final list of firms that receive funding. However, he refused to see this as problematic.

"I could sign all or nothing. I had no power to decide if one firm received funding and another does not," he said.

He also said that of the 61,000 companies that applied for agricultural funding, 97 percent received it. The remaining 3 percent did not meet the given criteria.

According to the non-parliamentary Democratic Party (DS), whose chairman is the former labour minister, Ľudovít Kaník, the SMK's decision to support Simon is "proof of the party's double standards".

"The DS considers the effort to obfuscate the parallels between the former minister Ľudovít Kaník and minister Simon as misleading to the public," said DS Deputy Chairman Pavol Frešo in an official statement.

The DS emphasized that while the SMK spoke out against Kaník, the labour minister's firm did not actually receive any funds.

"In the case of Simon, the SMK says there is no reason for criticism, although the agricultural funding [for Simon] was approved and the EU funding [for Kaník] was personally withdrawn," Frešo said.

"It is immoral to use a double standard depending on what minister is at stake," he said.

The SMK chairman insisted that Agrotrade's funding was available to all applicants who met given criteria, while Kaník's application was subjective.

"Any subjective interference is excluded [in Simon's case]," said Bugár.

The SMK chairman also stressed that Simon sold his company as soon as he could to eliminate potential conflicts of interests.

"If Simon still had the firm and this firm received funding, we would act and we would act principally," Bugár said.

Simon says he is no longer in contact with Agrotrade. He advises anyone considering a ministerial post to sell his or her firm or firms before accepting the position.

According to opposition parties such as Smer, Simon's case represents a conflict of interest. Smer is even considering proposing a vote of no confidence against Simon in parliament.

According to analyst Grigorij Mesežnikov with the Institute for Public Affairs in Bratislava, Simon's case is not cut and dried.

"The area of agriculture is a specific one. The reasons for firing a minister are also specific. Settling possible conflicts of interests in this area are arguably more complicated that in other areas," Mesežnikov told The Slovak Spectator.

Prime Minister Dzurinda gave the SMK a relatively free hand in deciding on the fate of Simon because "admittedly, it would not be acceptable for the PM's cabinet to lose another minister," the analyst concluded.

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