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Norway demands return of aid money

A SENEC-BASED civic association appears to have underestimated the zero-tolerance approach towards corruption required by a significant donor to Slovakia. The administrators of the Norway and European Economic Area (EEA) Grants system now say that fraudulent use of funds provided by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway to co-finance the construction of a sports stadium in Senec means that all the money they had donated must now be returned.

A SENEC-BASED civic association appears to have underestimated the zero-tolerance approach towards corruption required by a significant donor to Slovakia. The administrators of the Norway and European Economic Area (EEA) Grants system now say that fraudulent use of funds provided by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway to co-finance the construction of a sports stadium in Senec means that all the money they had donated must now be returned.

The three donor countries are demanding that Slovakia return more than €668,000: the sum provided through Norway and EEA Grants to construct a multi-purpose sports complex which was intended to make sporting activities more available to local children and young people.

“We apply a zero-tolerance policy to fraud or any misuse of the EEA and Norway funds,” Norwegian Ambassador to Slovakia Trine Skymoen told The Slovak Spectator.

Following allegations of fraud in the project the donor states commissioned an audit of the project which indicated that costs had been inflated and spending not documented, according to Skymoen. An investigation carried out by the Slovak authorities also confirmed fraud, she added.

The sports club and civic association SFM Senec, the author of the project, submitted a fraudulent bank statement to the Slovak Government Office, which is the contact point for Norway and EEA Grants. The Office for the Fight Against Corruption, a police unit, obtained the original bank statements directly from the branch at which SFM Senec held its account. Comparison of the documents revealed that €62,000 was not transferred to the account of a supplier in the way that SFM Senec had declared, but was instead withdrawn in cash from the project account, the Government Office told the SITA newswire.

“After the fraud was uncovered, we requested a full reimbursement of the provided funds from the Slovak authorities,” Skymoen said.

The Government Office has already filed a criminal complaint against an unknown offender on suspicion of fraud and tampering with financial documentation. The Government Office will demand repayment of the complete sum of €668,284, including the €118,000 which the state co-financed from SFM Senec, SITA reported.

Chairman of SFM Senec Alexander Matlák has remained tight-lipped, saying on September 3 only that he had not received any statement from the parties involved, including Norway Grants. The sports facility, whose price tag was €800,000, in fact opened in 2009. Norway and EEA Grants covered 85 percent of the costs; the Slovak government co-financed the remaining 15 percent.

Explaining the procedure used in any cases where doubts emerge about how funding had been used, Skymoen said that “in accordance with our zero-tolerance policy towards any misuse there are clear rules and regulations which are applied when there is suspicion of misuse of funds”.

Skymoen said that the Norway and EEA Grants are intended to help to reduce social and economic disparities in Europe and that Norway supports many valuable projects in 15 beneficiary states, including Slovakia.

“Our support will continue [here],” Skymoen told The Slovak Spectator. “But there should also be no doubt that our zero tolerance of fraud, corruption and misuse of the funds will also continue to be strictly applied.”

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