Tender watchdog boss quits

ROMAN Šipoš had a rather short career as boss of Slovakia’s procurement authority. He resigned on April 11, after less than a year in the job, following withering criticism from Prime Minister Iveta Radičová of the operation of the Public Procurement Authority (ÚVO).

ROMAN Šipoš had a rather short career as boss of Slovakia’s procurement authority. He resigned on April 11, after less than a year in the job, following withering criticism from Prime Minister Iveta Radičová of the operation of the Public Procurement Authority (ÚVO).

Radičová pointed to what she called a rise in cancelled public tenders and the authority’s failure to efficiently publish its decisions following audits.

But it is the question of Šipoš’s replacement rather than his departure that has resonated on the political scene. Opposition leader Robert Fico, who chairs the Smer party, swiftly announced that his party would nominate a candidate to lead ÚVO and insisted that the position, based on the traditional distribution of power, “belongs” to the opposition.

“I do not see any reason why a representative of the ruling coalition should stand at the top of this institution,” said Fico. “This position belongs to the opposition and we will claim it.”

Fico stated that under the previous government, a representative of the opposition led the office. He also said that if the ruling coalition changes this rule, it would deform Slovakia’s laws.

Radičová responded that she would wait to see whom Smer actually nominates and then make a decision, implying that the government would not agree to any name put forward. The prime minister said the government is open to nomination of a professional, independent person who is recognised for his or her expertise and is familiar with public procurement policies.

Observers said they would also prefer independent, non-partisan professionals to watch over public tenders.

“It should be an independent person,” the president of the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO), Grigorij Mesežnikov, told The Slovak Spectator. “If the coalition and the opposition had been able to agree on a joint candidate, that would have been the best solution. However, claiming that the opposition should have the right to control the coalition through this public institution is quite wrong.”

According to Mesežnikov, the adherence of public procurement processes to the law must be controlled regardless of any partisan link.

Regarding Fico’s insistence that the post belongs to the opposition, Mesežnikov said that this claim lacks foundation.

“The previous chairman of ÚVO, [Béla] Angyal, was not a nominee of the opposition at all,” Mesežnikov said, pointing out that he was appointed by the second government of Mikuláš Dzurinda. Fico accepted him in the same way as the current ruling coalition accepted Šipoš, who was also nominated not as a representative of the opposition but by the government – in this case, Fico’s own – before the 2010 election, Mesežnikov explained.

The Civic Conservative Party, which has four MPs in parliament who were elected as part of the Most-Híd candidate list, agrees and has argued that the role of ÚVO should not be to serve as a lever in the struggle between the opposition and the ruling coalition, or as a means to cover up potential blunders in public procurement, the SITA newswire wrote.

The Sme daily reported on April 14 that lawyer Tomáš Kamenec, who has expertise in tenders, is being considered. Radičová responded that she is aware of Kamenec from his role as an expert quoted by the media, but she refused to comment further on his possible nomination. Parliament is likely to vote on a new candidate on May 15.

The head of ÚVO is selected by parliament based on a proposal by the cabinet, according to the new revision to the law on public procurement that became valid on April 1.

Šipoš’s departure

After Šipoš’s departure, Fico was quick to suggest that his resignation was likely to have been caused by pressure from the government.

“Apparently he has been pushed and forced to do things that are not in line with the law,” Fico said, as quoted by the TASR newswire.

Šipoš himself remained somewhat tight-lipped about the reasons for his departure, delivering only a vague statement on the subject. He said that since his appointment he had always proceeded in a standard manner in protecting the public interest.

“I am convinced that I did not knowingly err,” Šipoš said, as quoted by SITA. “The circumstances that emerged convinced me that I could not have acted otherwise if I wanted to remain true to human values and principles.”

In early April, Radičová noted that ÚVO had cancelled 111 out of 220 public procurements and that she had received several complaints regarding the operation of the tender watchdog. The prime minister claimed that ÚVO’s current deputy chairman, Marek Vladár, is operating under a clear conflict of interest.

Vladár was responsible for public procurement at the Interior Ministry under the previous government. As deputy head of ÚVO he now oversees several tenders that he himself originally announced, including a tender on electronic identification cards and a register of private citizens.

Nevertheless, following Šipoš’s departure Vladár is now temporarily in charge of the whole authority.

Among Radičová’s criticism was that ÚVO’s decisions sometimes take several months and significantly hinder the procurement process.

One of the most closely watched recent decisions by ÚVO was the cancellation of a tender process at Slovakia’s railway operator, ŽSR. In mid March construction firm Skanska and ŽSR protested against an ÚVO decision that ordered ŽSR to cancel a year-long tender process for a contract to modernise a 12-kilometre section of line between Zlatovce and Trenčianska Teplá. The contract had been provisionally awarded to Skanska, which submitted the lowest bid. The firm is now suing ÚVO, as is ŽSR. ÚVO cancelled the tender based on an audit conducted even before a contract had been signed.

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