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Moves to tighten rules for officials

FIFTY-ONE public officials failed to submit their 2012 property reports to parliament by the April 2 deadline this year, the highest number since 2004, when the constitutional law on the interests of public officials was adopted. While the slackers might end up being fined, current legislation does not have the power to force them to ever submit a declaration. The situation might, however, change next year if parliament adopts a revision to the constitutional law on conflicts of interest to require public officials not only to submit reports but also to reveal more about the contents of their wallets, and their assets.

FIFTY-ONE public officials failed to submit their 2012 property reports to parliament by the April 2 deadline this year, the highest number since 2004, when the constitutional law on the interests of public officials was adopted. While the slackers might end up being fined, current legislation does not have the power to force them to ever submit a declaration. The situation might, however, change next year if parliament adopts a revision to the constitutional law on conflicts of interest to require public officials not only to submit reports but also to reveal more about the contents of their wallets, and their assets.

Of the 650 public officials who were obliged to provide information on their property in 2012, three officials turned in reports after the deadline, according to the chairman of the parliamentary committee on conflicts of interests, Miroslav Beblavý, an MP for the opposition Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ). The 51 public officials who either failed to submit their property reports or were late might have to pay a fine equal to one month’s salary if the conflicts of interest committee finds that the law has been violated, the SITA newswire reported.

The revision to the conflicts of interest law, which was introduced on April 12 by Beblavý, who also serves as a member of the committee responsible for drafting the law on conflicts of interest, foresees escalating fines for those who fail to submit reports until they disclose the required information. However, transparency watchdogs say that more detailed property reports are of key importance.

“Currently one has very limited opportunity to find out whether properties correspond with legal income,” Gabriel Šípoš, director of the Transparency International Slovensko (TIS), a political transparency watchdog, told The Slovak Spectator in an earlier interview.

Last year, 20 public officials failed to submit declarations, with Beblavý suggesting that either the end of the election term in early 2012, or the fact that this year parliament did not send out warning letters, might explain the increased number of violations in 2013, SITA reported.

Defining conflicts of interest

As of next year, public officials would have to disclose the names of domestic and foreign banks with which they hold accounts containing more than €10,000, according to the revision prepared by a working group consisting of representatives of all the parliamentary parties, the TASR newswire reported.

Beblavý believes that the revision, which would widen the scope of the law to require public officials including the president of the Police Corps and the head of the Financial Administration to submit property reports, has a chance of receiving parliamentary approval. He expects the house to discuss it in June 2013.

Under the new rules, “officials” of 100-percent state-owned companies will be obliged to disclose their property holdings, along with the CEOs of companies where the state holds a majority share.

Beblavý said that officials who were commissioned by private minority owners to serve in companies where the state holds a majority should submit property declarations as well, though he admitted that “this might be subject to discussion”, TASR reported.

The goal of the revision is not to check on private shareholders, Beblavý said, adding that if the state holds a majority in a company then those who represent the private investors should also disclose their property.

In companies where the state holds a minority stake, then only representatives nominated by the state should be obliged to disclose their property holdings, Beblavý added, according to TASR.

Changes would also affect the area of gifts and donations, with public officials being allowed to accept private gifts but being obliged to disclose such gifts if they exceed €4,000 in value.

Beblavý suggested that officials should also disclose the names of persons who give such expensive gifts to officials, TASR wrote.

Under the current legislation, a public official is not allowed to accept gifts linked to the performance of his office, yet the new legislation will allow gifts up to €50 annually. The public officials will have at their disposal new forms for the submission of declarations, which will require more detailed information.

“Under the new rules, they will have to declare all incomes which are subject to income taxes,” said Beblavý, adding that this would be the first time that officials’ entire income is disclosed.

The officials will also have to describe their property in detail. For example, it will no longer be enough to say that someone owns a car; the brand will also have to be disclosed, TASR reported.

Officials will declare property of which they have used even if they are not the owner, and they will also have to explain considerable increases in their property holdings. The revision makes fines for failures to act in line with the law stricter, up to dismissal or loss of parliamentary seat, for MPs, according to TASR.

When asked earlier in April about the fundamentals of an effective conflicts of interest law, Ctibor Košťál of the Slovak Governance Institute (SGI) told The Slovak Spectator that the key to any law linked to conflicts of interest was an exact and detailed definition of potential conflicts which prevents varied interpretation, a range of defined situations which constitute a potential conflict of interests, as well as the existence of an independent monitoring body to assess conflicts of interests – not formally, but in detail, without political intervention.

However, Košťál also added that much will depend in what form the law is approved and whether some deputies succeed in efforts to hollow out its provisions in parliament.

Alternative disclosure

Public officials, however, have been invited by Fair-Play Alliance, a political ethics watchdog, since March 2008 to voluntarily disclose additional information to the public, including more data about their income and property holdings. Unlike the website of parliament, Politikaopen, a transparency website, contains additional information that has been voluntarily disclosed by public officials. Last year, 24 members of parliament, primarily from the opposition parties, disclosed additional data to Politikaopen.

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