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EDITORIAL

The magic phrase

“NO LAW has been broken,” is one of those magic, formulaic responses that politicians often throw to journalists whenever the media starts digging into deals that may formally meet legal standards but may be rotten to their core when judged by ethical standards.

“NO LAW has been broken,” is one of those magic, formulaic responses that politicians often throw to journalists whenever the media starts digging into deals that may formally meet legal standards but may be rotten to their core when judged by ethical standards.

The frequency of a particular politician’s use of this phrase often depends on whether he or she is at that moment in the opposition or is in the country’s government. Sometimes even those most eager defenders of the “no law has been broken and the deal is alright” response morph into harsh critics of the phrase when it is not someone from their own political tribe who stands to benefit. Smer boss Robert Fico has offered an exemplary insight into this chameleon-like approach.

Understandably, with the frequency that the phrase has been used in Slovakia, journalists (and maybe even citizens) are becoming concerned (and perhaps a bit angry) whenever questions about cronyism or unethical conduct are routinely dismissed with these particular words.

All in all, “no law has been broken” has been pretty much the response from political officialdom to qualms about the contract Slovakia’s Tax Directorate, headed by Miroslav Mikulčík, signed earlier this year to lease an office building in Košice from Nitra Invest, a firm co-owned by Ondrej Ščurka, the chair of the Nitra branch of the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ). Not only do the stories about how Nitra Invest was chosen ring hollow, but the explanations about the firm’s background have only raised new questions rather than satisfactorily answering the initial ones.

The deal, worth €6.6 million, may be unlikely to snap anyone’s political neck even though there certainly could have been a more elegant way of responding to the controversy than posing the question: “Should a party member be handicapped or discriminated against?” That curious quote comes from Mikuláš Dzurinda, boss of the SDKÚ, who contended that the whole process had been above-board and transparent.

Nevertheless, Prime Minister Iveta Radičová properly asked the Tax Directorate’s director to take new bids to find office space in Košice and added that if a cheaper offer meeting all requirements is submitted, he should cancel the current contract. One can only guess why she did not order the deal be dumped first and then a new, transparent tender could be started in which Ščurka’s firm could bid.

Is it because those who pull the strings in her party would not have liked that decision or is it because she is convinced that the deal has no blemishes?

Recent weeks offered another version of the “no laws have been broken” excuse when Miloslava Zemková, the director of Radio and Television of Slovakia (RTVS), took around €17,000 in severance payments plus a generous €13,000 bonus when departing from her last job as director of Slovak Radio (SRo) to take the helm at RTVS. We are told that her severance pay was based on a last-minute change to the collective agreement negotiated between the trade unions and management.

Zemková, who will soon start laying off hundreds of people from RTVS, first defended her severance and then, when pressed for explanations and a return of the money, said she actually could not do so because SRo no longer exists and anyway, she had already given her severance to charity. As of April 14 Slovakia’s taxpayers had yet to learn which lucky charity benefited so generously from their taxes.

Oddly, Zemková was not known as a public servant who carried along a suitcase of controversial or nonsensical decisions or as an apple polisher to whatever politicians happened to be in power. So one can only incredulously wonder why a public servant with such a good reputation could use such bad judgement – a blunder that the Slovak public will be more likely to remember than any future steps she might take to heal the ailing, debt-ridden public broadcaster.

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