Questions for SNS minister

THE CONTROVERSIES swirling around ministers nominated by the Slovak National Party (SNS) have yet to abate. Two ministers from the SNS, one of two junior parties in the tripartite governing coalition, have been forced to resign in the past two months over dubious public contracts.

THE CONTROVERSIES swirling around ministers nominated by the Slovak National Party (SNS) have yet to abate. Two ministers from the SNS, one of two junior parties in the tripartite governing coalition, have been forced to resign in the past two months over dubious public contracts.

Now the third SNS minister, Education Minister Ján Mikolaj, has entered the spotlight after it was revealed that education contracts had been awarded to a former classmate of his in a way that ethics watchdogs have called ‘rather interesting’.

Furthermore, a regional daily newspaper claims to have an official record of the classmate talking about his connections to “Ján” from the ministry. The opposition is calling for an in-depth audit of the ministry and for the contract, which is paid from European Union funds, to be examined.

The Pravda daily broke the story that the Academia Istropolitana and the State Institute of
Professional Education, both funded by the Education Ministry, awarded two contracts to a company, Consulting–Education, which is owned by Mikolaj’s former classmate Marián Kováčik. The first contract, from Academia Istropolitana, was worth €730,000 and was paid for “complex organisational management of education,” according to the daily.

The two contracts netted almost €1.6 million for the firm, which was established shortly before the competition.

“It has been arranged with Ján we will make sure that he is happy and that he supports us and then we will settle the rest,” Kováčik allegedly said to a clerk at the academy, according to an official record dated October 2007 obtained by the daily.

However, Mikolaj denied interfering with the tender and suggested that there are about 220,000 people named Ján in Slovakia. Though he admitted knowing Kováčik, he also said he does not know the business Kováčik is involved in.

The Slovak Governance Institute begged to differ.

“The approved orders for the given firm display all the signs of non-transparent selection,” Ctibor Košťál, executive director of the Slovak Governance Institute told The Slovak Spectator. “On the one hand there is the connection between the education minister and Mr Kováčik, and on the other hand the competition was not properly published, a move which prevented a real competition, [and] an eventual reduction in the price through competition between several offers.”

As of May 27, the ministry had given no clear explanation about where the contract was announced or when the results had been published.

The minister allegedly appointed two members of the commission at Academia Istropolitana which chose the winning firm. Kováčik is a Žilina-based businessman who before winning the contract worked in the construction industry.

Meanwhile, the police have started criminal proceedings over another tender at Academia Istropolitana, which was financed from European Union funds, the police confirmed to the Sme daily. The criminal complaint was logged by the civil association Eurea, which had wanted to apply for the competition to monitor and evaluate projects announced by the academy.

Mikolaj also argued that his ministry does not have the authority to intervene in the procurement process at organisations such as Academia Istropolitana, and suggested that this is the responsibility of the Public Procurement Office or the Supreme Audit Office.

According to Košťál, the minister carries full responsibility for happenings at his department, including Academia Istropolitana.

“The fact that for the given amount of money there was no public tender announced gives the impression that advantage was given to a narrow group of applicants,” Košťál said.
Mikolaj insisted that no public procurement rules had been breached, since none of the failed bidders had complained.

“This argument simply does not hold,” Košťál said, adding that recently leading Slovak politicians have frequently argued that the rules have not been violated. “Firstly, there is a suspicion of violation of the law since the state must publish the purchase of services at such costs in the public procurement journal.”

Secondly, according to Košťál, both the case of Mikolaj and the so-called bulletin-board tender have the extra dimension of ineffective management of public funds.

“The education minister, given his position, has the option of toughening the procurement conditions for the implementation of projects covered from EU structural funds and thus preventing confusion and murky competitions,” Košťál said. “However, the minister has not done so. The argument that a complaint was not lodged simply does not hold since in the case of manipulated procurement other ‘applicants’ are often somehow united with the winner and then objections on their part are unrealistic. What they do is create the veil to legitimise the procurement.”

According to Košťál, there are several parallels with the so-called bulletin-board tender, for example, or with the case of so-called social companies.

The institute recently warned that under the veil of a project to support social companies, which are supposed to curb unemployment, funds were granted to people close to the governing coalition parties Smer and the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS).

“All the cases are using the same mechanism: the first step is to use a loophole in the legislation or its different interpretation with the aim of avoiding a classic public tender,” Košťál said.

“Then the next step is the unclear process of public procurement or its clear manipulation, while in the third move the contract is signed with a friendly person or firm.”

The most serious failing according to Košťál is the fact that no public announcement of a competition has been made and that potential applicants have therefore not been informed properly.
Mikolaj is facing more questions since his daughter, who works at the State Pedagogical Institute, is also being paid from European Union funds. The ministry said that she went through a regular selection process, and rejected claims that it was a case of cronyism.

Prime Minister Robert Fico sacked Ján Chrbet as environment minister in early May after he had failed to observe an ultimatum to disclose details of the controversial contract to sell Slovakia’s excess emissions quotas (see story on pg 2).

Chrbet's sacking came only weeks after his SNS colleague Marian Janušek was fired as construction minister. Janušek’s ministry had awarded a lucrative contract to a sole bidder after the original tender was advertised only on an internal bulletin board at the ministry in an area closed to the public.

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