White Crows awarded

THOUGH it is not easy to report corruption in Slovakia, partly because of a lack of laws protecting whistle-blowers, there are those who still take the risk, like teacher Vladimír Crmoman, who learned about wasteful spending at the Education Ministry on flowers, alcohol and car servicing, and got the authorities to deal with the problem by publishing the information in the media.

THOUGH it is not easy to report corruption in Slovakia, partly because of a lack of laws protecting whistle-blowers, there are those who still take the risk, like teacher Vladimír Crmoman, who learned about wasteful spending at the Education Ministry on flowers, alcohol and car servicing, and got the authorities to deal with the problem by publishing the information in the media.

Or there is Oto Žarnay from the Business Academy Polárna in Košice, who lost his job after exposing dubious spending by his school on legal services.

The pair was among four laureates of this year’s White Crow award, granted by the political ethics watchdog Fair-Play Alliance and Via Iuris legal think-tank since 2008. The award honours Slovaks who take personal risks as whistle-blowers by challenging unethical or corrupt behaviour, and for displays of civic bravery and integrity. It goes to people willing to defend the truth and justice while sacrificing their personal interests for the public good, according to the White Crow award website.

“This award should have a symbolic value for all people who, unlike us or other [White Crow] laureates, have not said what they think yet,” Žarnay told The Slovak Spectator.

Mariana Vavrová, who pointed to a dubious regulation issued by the state-run social insurer Sociálna Poisťovňa and subsequently lost her job, and Katarína Šimončičová, an activist focused on protecting trees, also received the award.

Two teachers, different ending

Several media outlets covered the case of Žarnay, who reported about an external lawyer getting more than €400 a month between 2011 and 2013. At the time several teachers at the business academy received only a basic salary, without personal bonuses. He also learned that the lawyer was once working in the same company as the brother of the head of the education department in Košice Region, which runs the academy.

As the chairman of the school council, he asked for an explanation as to why the school was paying for legal services. Unsatisfied with the answer, he turned to the self-government regional bodies.
In May 2013 he lost his job due to “organisational reasons”, according to the White Crow website.

The school’s headmaster has denied that he dismissed Žarnay because of his activities. He told the media that school received less financing, and that also the number of students is decreasing. He allegedly did not know about the connection between the lawyer and regional representative, explaining that the school needed the legal services because of the applications for money from EU structural funds.

Žarnay said that he does not regret his decision, and he would do it again, even if the sanctions would have been stricter.

“I would not live with the feeling that I protect people who violate the law,” he told The Slovak Spectator, adding he plans to fight for his job, and hopes that he will return to the school.

Unlike this case, the school where Crmoman works, on Novohradská Street in Bratislava, supports his activities. He is one of the leaders of the civic initiative “The government says there is no money, so the teachers will help to find it”, whose aim is to prove that the Education Ministry can locate money for schools and teachers when it cuts out waste.

Crmoman, for example, pointed to overpriced service for one of the cars of the Education Ministry, costing €11,000. Auto-mechanics checked the car twice: in July and in September 2012. There were also some discrepancies in the number of kilometres driven and the amount of motor oil used . Thanks to his activities the ministry looked into the suspicions, which resulted in the dismissal of two people. Since he was not satisfied with the result, Crmoman filed a complaint with the court, asking for a more complete investigation.

Different explanations of one law

Vavrová was working as a lawyer in the state-run social insurer Sociálna Poisťovňa, but lost her job after she questioned a regulation the insurer had issued.

In recent years, Sociálna Poisťovňa has lost several cases at the Supreme Court after it refused to pay pensions to former soldiers and police officers who did not work in civil employment for 15 years, a period set in the valid law. According to the rulings, the insurer discriminated against them, and was ordered to pay them a pension.

After receiving the verdicts, Sociálna Poisťovňa issued a regulation in May 2013, which states that every soldier and police officer who leaves active service and works in civil occupation for less than 15 years, not only those who complained at the court, should receive the pension, the website reads. According to Vavrová, the regulation is at odds with valid law.

She explained that after the social insurer received the verdicts, it turned to the Labour Ministry and received an answer that it knows about the problem and considers preparing a new law with clearer wording. Despite this answer Sociálna Poisťovňa passed the regulation.

“It is questionable whether Sociálna Poisťovňa should prematurely make such a decision and with its internal rules regulate the procedures which were fundamentally different than before,” she told The Slovak Spectator.

Vavrová even launched a petition signed by another 86 employees. She subsequently lost her job, together with her colleague. Some other people were bullied after signing the petition, she said.

Trees are worthy of protection

Šimončičová, who is often called the ombudswoman for trees, has been leading the local committee of the Slovak Association of Environmentalists in Bratislava for more than 15 years.

She often visits the meetings of bodies which are in charge of deforestation, and fights against disadvantageous land sales, discrepancies in land plans and illegal buildings. The cases she was involved in include the protest against the demolition of the PKO cultural venue, attempts to rescue the Belopotockého park and the Krasovského forest, and protesting against the construction of Riverpark.

She has already experienced bullying and attempts to bribe her. A few years ago she was also attacked by a land owner during a deforestation proceeding, according to White Crow organisers.

Yet, she still continues in her activities and even tries to educate the officers to call her when the developers want to chop down the trees, as well as urging people to be more careful about what is happening in their own surroundings and “to be citizens, not only inhabitants”, Šimončičová told The Slovak Spectator.

The value of whistle-blowers

Despite some unhappy endings, Milan Šagát from Via Iuris considers the message the White Crow award winners have sent to be very positive. They showed that “the journey is as important as the goal”, and they have become role models, he told The Slovak Spectator.

Moreover, the award has gradually become a symbol of courage, and people often approach the laureates and ask them for help with their problems, Zuzana Wienk from the Fair-Play Alliance told the press on November 17.

She added that the role of critics in various institutions is very important as they often point to problems which, when solved early, can prevent bigger damage.

“We should support these critics and dissidents in institutions, we should listen to them and not dismiss them,” Wienk said.

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