MICHAL Sántai had a rather brief managerial post at the Ministry of Transport, Construction and Regional Development, the so-called super-ministry which among other things now supervises the flow of European Union funding to Slovakia. Sántai, who was appointed by Transport Minister Ján Počiatek to lead the section responsible for coordinating EU funding, resigned on April 23 – just days into his job – after the Sme daily reported on his activities during the first government of Robert Fico, when he worked at the scandal-plagued Ministry of Construction under Fico’s coalition partner the Slovak National Party (SNS).
While Sántai has denied any responsibility for one of the most notorious cases of alleged corruption to arise during the first Fico government – the so-called bulletin-board tender at the Construction Ministry – a transparency watchdog argued that a man who did stand up against a dubious tender should not be managing EU funding.
The bulletin-board tender for legal and support services, worth €120 million, was won by a consortium including two companies, Avocat and Zamedia, close to SNS boss Ján Slota after the tender was announced solely via a notice posted on a bulletin board at the Ministry of Construction. The board was in an area not normally accessible to the public. Several audits confirmed that the services provided via the tender were overpriced.
“I strongly deny any linking of my person with the bulletin-board tender,” Sántai said on April 23 as he stepped down, adding that at the time the contract was prepared and signed he was working in the private sector and that he moved to the ministry only four months later, the SITA newswire reported.
Sántai said he was stepping down so as not to interfere in the work of Počiatek, who he said wants to improve the drawing of EU funds.
The Ministry of Transport said on April 23 in an official press release that it had received notice of Sántai’s intention to step down and was seeking a suitable candidate for the post.
“Appointing Sántai was a great mistake,” said Gabriel Šípoš, head of the watchdog group Transparency International Slovensko, to The Slovak Spectator. “A man who did not oppose the corrupt tender of the so-called bulletin-board type cannot manage EU funds in this country. It is good that after the media published the information he immediately left.”
According to Šípoš, the response to the published doubts was correct. However, he added that what still prompted doubts was the “inability to find for this position a man without shadows of the past”.
The ministry said in its statement that Minister Ján Počiatek had charged Sántai with management of the Central Coordination Body based on his “professional qualities considering the grave condition and defunct management of EU funds that the new leadership of the ministry encountered after taking over”.
“The Smer party, which nominated the minister of transport, has never had anything in common with the so-called bulletin-board tender under the management of the SNS,” ministry spokesperson Martin Kóňa wrote in the statement, adding that, on the contrary, political accountability was drawn by the first Fico government.
According to Kóňa, considering the sensitivity of these issues Smer did not want any nominations to evoke doubts and that this was why Sántai had decided to step down from the post and would not be appointed as director.
Even though Sántai was not working at the ministry when the ill-famed contract was signed, Sme reported that he had several links to the contract. He later signed the protocols on accepting invoices from Zamedia and also led a monitoring committee which was supposed to oversee the contract. The daily also noted that when the then-minister of construction, Marián Janušek, defended the tender, Sántai was sitting next to him along with Janušek’s successor as minister, Igor Štefanov.
Šípoš said that such circumstances should disqualify Sántai from becoming a state official again.
“He has evidently not done enough that we can consider him a morally resistant-enough man,” said Šípoš. “In the case of EU funds there are millions of euros handled on a daily basis and the head [of such an office] must stand up against their abuse. Sántai, in the case of the bulletin-board tender, did not act in the public interest, otherwise he would have stepped down from the monitoring committee and actively informed the police or media about the serious suspicions.”
Sántai said that he is considering legal steps as a private individual to protect his personal rights.
Two official investigations found in 2009 that Slovakia’s public procurement rules were broken in the Construction Ministry’s award of an EU-funded €120-million contract to a consortium including Avocat and Zamedia. Services provided under the tender involved what the investigations found to be overpriced logos, TV spots, and services.
In 2009, the European Commission refused to reimburse Slovakia the €11 million that had already been paid to the consortium that was awarded the contract. The tender was originally supposed to be EU-funded.
In March 2011, Slovak police asked the General Prosecutor’s Office to submit a proposal to strip Štefanov of his MP’s immunity so that he could be prosecuted in connection with the bulletin-board tender.
However, acting general prosecutor Ladislav Tichý refused to seek removal of Štefanov’s immunity in May 2011 and returned the case to the police. In November 2011, the SNS announced that Štefanov was not going to be on the party’s slate, and he no longer serves as an MP.