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Agriculture minister accused of nepotism, prime minister stands by him

KOMJATICE, a village in Nitra Region, may become a new symbol of nepotism after one of its prominent natives, Slovakia’s agriculture minister Ľubomír Jahnátek, was found to have hired six people into high Agriculture Ministry positions, all of whom are either relatives of his, or current or former inhabitants of his native village.

KOMJATICE, a village in Nitra Region, may become a new symbol of nepotism after one of its prominent natives, Slovakia’s agriculture minister Ľubomír Jahnátek, was found to have hired six people into high Agriculture Ministry positions, all of whom are either relatives of his, or current or former inhabitants of his native village.

The Sme daily first broke the story in mid September, when it reported that Jahnátek’s sister’s son and daughter, Lukáš Peško and Petra Bohunová, were employed at managerial positions at the ministry. Since then, Sme reporters discovered a number of other people who have worked at the ministry and have some connection either with Jahnátek or Komjatice.

“When the natives are smart, why should they be disqualified?” Jahnátek responded in an interview with Sme. “University rectors, faculty deans, nuclear energy experts, excellent doctors, artists, recognised athletes come from Komjatice. Not just me, but we all help Komjatice.”

All the minister’s men and women

The list of ministry employees with ties to Jahnátek published by Sme currently includes the minister’s nephew Lukáš Peško (head control of projects financed from two EU operational programmes) , his niece Petra Bohunová (head of operations and registration), Komjatice native Marek Gocník (general director of the department of implementation of regional development programmes and a member of the Slovak Land Fund council), the brother-in-law of the local Smer head in Komjatice Gabriel Jaššo (head of state property and investment), and former Komjatice inhabitants Peter Hajnala (head of the press office) and Stanislav Péli (head of internal audits).

Péli is the brother-in-law of Ľudovít Koppan, a Komjatice native, and is the general director of auditing at the ministry. He was transferred to his post from another position, and thus did not have to undergo a selection procedure, according to Sme.

The names of the minister’s two godsons, Ľudovít and Michal Gráf, had been in the ministry’s phonebook until Sme inquired about them. The ministry told Sme that they “provided short-term two-week help in the area of administration of documents and processing of the documentation of operational programmes” while the ministry’s permanent employees were on summer holiday, Sme wrote.

All the employees in question became joined the ministry’s staff only after Jahnátek took up the ministerial post.

The minister refused to speculate about whether Komjatice inhabitants were given an advantage in the selection of employees when asked by Sme. He also said he has not lived in the village since 1978, but the cadastre records show that he still owns property in Komjatice and that his family still lives there. His brother is a local council member for Smer, according to Sme.

Press department head Peter Hajnala, himself a former Komjatice citizen, stated for the Slovak Spectator that only the Service Office has the authority to recruit new employees, and the minister does not interfere with the process because the law prevents him from doing so.

“The information about family ties and about the permanent address are not a subject of attention and they do not represent any criteria for the selection of applicants,” Hajnala told The Slovak Spectator, adding that the criteria are only related to the applicants’ qualifications as they pertain to the job in the state service.

“All selection procedures at the Agriculture Ministry have thus been fully in accordance with the law on state service,” Hajnala stressed.

SUB: Selecting from one

The ministry remained tight-lipped about its employees mentioned in the story after it was published until October 1, when it answered Sme’s questions about the ministry’s selection process.

The ministry admitted that Peško, Bohunová, Gocník, Jaššo, Hajnala and Péli were selected in an “internal selection procedure” and that the announcement for their posts was only published on the ministry’s intranet, which means that only ministry employees had access to the information, according to Sme.

As a result, all six of the employees in question were the only ones to compete for their posts.

The internal selection procedures were introduced in 2009, when the government headed by Robert Fico passed a new law on state service, opposition MP Miroslav Beblavý noted.

“Fico’s government thus bears political responsibility for this case - it directly allowed it [to happen],” Beblavý said.

Before the change, the law required that every job position must be filled through public competition that would allow anyone who satisfies the conditions stipulated by law to apply. The internal selection process does not require anything more than “an announcement on the bulletin board”, according to Beblavý.

Internal selection procedures are applied in cases when the ministry wants to make use of its own reserves, for “a post for which there is no reason to recruit a person from outside,” minister Jahnátek told Sme in an interview printed on October 3, estimating that this could account for up to 95 percent of all cases.

Since the ministry provided the press with information about the selection procedures in question, Jahnátek considers the issue to be closed, he told Sme.

But Beblavý, who heads the parliamentary committee for incompatibility of functions, announced he would initiate the committee’s investigation into the matter at its October session, arguing that Jahnátek should explain whether or not he has found himself in a conflict of interest over the hiring of these relatives and compatriots.

Jahnátek sees conspiracy

During the September 30 press briefing Jahnátek indirectly accused Sme of taking part in a conspiracy, asking why the issue around the employees at the ministry is coming up now, even though they have been working at the ministry since January.

“Ask yourselves why this all happened,” Jahnátek said. “What is actually going on in the food industry and all, and why this attack was started.”

He claimed to have received information three weeks earlier that “an association” was preparing to discredit him in connection with “my being persistent about the milder fines” issued in the food industry. He did not go into further detail about the campaign, nor did he specify which “association” he was referring to.

Prime Minister Robert Fico has backed Jahnátek’s claim of being personally attacked.

“I see a lot behind the attacks on Minister Jahnátek,” Fico said, as quoted by Sme. “Mostly [over] the fact that the minister very clearly jumped on retail chains who are behaving incorrectly.”

Family ties are strong in Slovakia

Nepotism is not new to Slovak politics. Transparency International Slovensko (TIS) head Gabriel Šípoš called it a traditional problem of the Slovak public sphere.

“It harms the quality of public administration, because friends and relatives usually don’t have such professional qualities as the best jobseekers on the market,” Šípoš told The Slovak Spectator.

In Slovakia, 60 percent of people consider personal ties or acquaintances to be important when dealing with public offices, according to a 2012 survey conducted by TIS, compared to Finland, where 36 percent of inhabitants believe the same.

“Nepotism could be prevented with open selection procedures with permanently published records where all applicants and their evaluation would be published,” Šípoš said.

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