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PM ANNOUNCES SUSPENSION OF GRANT AFTER BRIBERY ALLEGED

Bribe claims threaten major event

MAJOR sporting events in Slovakia this year seem to be suffering from some sort of curse. After the Winter Deaflympics, scheduled to take place in February 2011, were cancelled at the last moment after it turned out that the now-jailed head of the organising committee had been diverting most of the finances into his own pocket, a corruption scandal now surrounds the organisation of the European Biathlon Championship, due to take place in February 2012 in central Slovakia.

MAJOR sporting events in Slovakia this year seem to be suffering from some sort of curse. After the Winter Deaflympics, scheduled to take place in February 2011, were cancelled at the last moment after it turned out that the now-jailed head of the organising committee had been diverting most of the finances into his own pocket, a corruption scandal now surrounds the organisation of the European Biathlon Championship, due to take place in February 2012 in central Slovakia.

Biathlon is, together with a few other disciplines, one sport in which Slovakia excels: the country’s biathletes enjoyed considerable success at the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010. The decision to hold the 2012 European championships in the biathlon centre in Osrblie, in Banská Bystrica Region, therefore came as a challenge to the country, and the government agreed to grant financial support for the reconstruction of the facilities there.



€1.6 million for a biathlon



The grant to the Slovak Biathlon Association (SZB) and the Biathlon Club Osrblie from the state was intended to contribute to the completion of a multifunctional building with rooms for referees, coaches, athletes, health-care workers and media crews. The main building there is currently just a concrete skeleton with windows attached, and needs to have fittings installed and floors finished. Construction experts say that the work could be finished in three months’ time, according to the SITA newswire.

The government assigned a total of €1.6 million for the purpose, with €1 million to come from the Education Ministry, €300,000 from the Finance Ministry and the other €300,000 from the prime minister’s financial reserve.

“Immediately, some persons appeared who started acting as if 10 percent belonged to them,” Prime Minister Iveta Radičová said when she announced that the government had suspended the grant after €300,000 of it had been paid out. She referred to events that occurred on July 29, when police detained three people alleged to have been in the act of passing a bribe of €30,000, or 10 percent of the state’s grant up to that time.



PM’s aide charged



The case garnered considerable public attention partly due to the fact that an external advisor to the prime minister, responsible for the economy portfolio, Martin Novotný, was allegedly involved in it.

Igor Líška, who is accused of indirect corruption in the case and is currently in pre-trial custody in order to prevent him from interfering in the investigation, alleged that Novotný provided information from within the Government Office about the grant for construction of the biathlon stadium. Furthermore, Líška allegedly received the €30,000 from the owner of the construction firm that was hired for the project, Peter Kňazík, in Novotný’s Bratislava office. Líška denies corruption.

Novotný was on holiday in the USA when the corruption allegations were made public, and refused to comment.

“I don’t have information and I’d find it hard to take any stance,” he told the Sme daily.



The Government Office, however, did not hesitate and Novotný was immediately fired from his post “due to the loss of trust”; the news about his dismissal was accompanied by assurances from the head of the prime minister’s board of advisors, Marián Balász, that external aides have neither decision-making nor any other competencies and as such they have no impact on decisions about grants.

The opposition, however, cried foul. Smer leader Robert Fico accused Radičová of corruption, saying that graft had never got so close to the prime minster as it had in this case.

In the most recent development, on August 17, Novotný returned from the USA and was subsequently officially accused in the case, Interior Minister Daniel Lipšic told a press conference, adding that more people might face charges in the near future, the TASR newswire reported.



Former ambassador held by police



Meanwhile, Líška, a former Slovak ambassador to Kenya who worked at the Foreign Ministry until February this year, is the only suspect so far to have ended up in pre-trial custody.

He was accused of having facilitated the passing of a bribe, along with two other persons, one of them Peter Kňazík, the owner of construction company Kňazík Slovakia.

Líška first admitted to the investigator that he had passed information about the grant that he had said he received from Novotný to Kňazík, who allegedly promised 10 percent of the sum to the facilitators of the grant, the Sme daily reported. Later, in court, Líška denied having committed any corrupt acts.

Kňazík, who according to Sme has admitted corruption in the case, was in 2010 found guilty of machination in public procurement and avoiding taxes, the Government Office stated, adding that both misdemeanours were connected to public procurement related to construction of the Osrblie facilities.

Another businessman, Peter Prečuch from Lučenec, has also been accused of corruption over the case. He was recently found guilty of bribery by the Specialised Criminal Court, but despite that was not taken into custody. The Sme daily reported on August 17 that Prečuch pledged to the court that he would not hinder the investigation, after which he was freed.



Championship endangered?



“In the event that the state grant is not provided, the European championship is seriously endangered,” the head of Biathlon Club Osrblie, Jozef Molčan, said, as quoted by the SITA newswire. “If this championship doesn’t take place, it will probably mean the end of international competitions in Osrblie.”

According to Molčan, the construction work has not progressed for two months now; it had been due to resume only after further state subsidies were granted.

Radičová quickly responded to such concerns in a statement on August 12 which said that the money is still available “thanks to the fast and uncompromising approach of the prime minister, the interior minister and the investigators”.

“The prime minister is ready to sign a contract with the Slovak Biathlon Association again, provided that the SZB selects a new provider of construction works and all questions surrounding the unjustified use of financial resources are cleared up,” the statement read.

The SZB is also being investigated by the police special anti-corruption unit. Representatives of the association, however, have denied responsibility for any corruption in the case.


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