Ex-employee points to overpriced presidency-related orders

The shadow of manipulated and overpriced public procurement looms over Slovakia’s EU presidency after a former ministry official spoke out about suspicious practices. The ministry dismisses the allegations.

The ceremonial launch of the Slovak presidency's logo. The ceremonial launch of the Slovak presidency's logo. (Source: Sme)

The allegations of mishandling public resources that the Foreign Ministry faced following the event to present the logo of Slovakia’s presidency over the Council of the EU earlier this year gained more concrete dimensions following a post on the blog of the non-governmental watchdog Transparency International Slovensko (TIS). The text signed by Zuzana Hlávková, a former ministry official, and TIS director Gabriel Šípoš, was published on November 20.

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In it, Hlávková describes how she started at the ministry in July 2015 as an expert for cultural presentation for Slovakia’s presidency over the Council of the EU. She describes the atmosphere upon her arrival to the small team of six people as “open and free” – until the new media advisor, Zuzana Ťapáková, became active at the ministry. Hlávková writes that suddenly her department was under pressure to change the original projects, including a significant increase in costs.

“The events that had originally been planned as rather modest and decent were suddenly turning into spectacular events of a much more commercial character,” Hlávková writes, particularly about two opening concerts that were originally planned to cost €63,800 and after the intervention of Ťapáková, the former director of the private Markíza TV, the budget increased to several hundred thousand euros.

Read also: Hlávková: I wanted to do the right thing Read more 

After Hlávková blew the whistle on the ministry, her claims received wide media attention. Yet the government refuted the allegations of misconduct. Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák’s first reaction was that it is an attempt to harm the well-progressing Slovak presidency. Prime Minister Robert Fico went much further with his reaction.

“Some of you are dirty, anti-Slovak prostitutes and I stand by my words,” he said at a November 23 press conference, adding that “it is not possible that you lie and harm the Slovak presidency on a daily basis”. He called Hlávková’s allegations and the media response they received a “targeted attack on the Slovak presidency”.

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Lajčák said at the same press conference that if anyone proves that he violated the law or moral principles, he will leave his post.

Read also: Whistleblower law underused so far Read more 

Evka and the logo event

In her blog post, Hlávková alleges that Zuzana Ťapáková was behind the idea to organise a major event to present the logo of the presidency, while “all the rest of us at the department” were against it.

The event was to take place in early 2016 (during the campaign before the March 5 parliamentary election).

Additionally, the public procurement for the event was conducted within the exception that the government passed for orders related to the Slovak presidency.

Read also: Foreign Ministry choice of Evka firm used exception Read more 

The tender for the gala evening could not be found in the bulletin of the Public Procurement Office; only the contract between the ministry and the agency in the central registry of contracts. For state bodies to use an exception, the amount for delivering goods and services cannot exceed €135,000. The ministry paid to Evka €130,000 without VAT (€156,000 with VAT), based on the media reports from after the event took place.

Hlávková claims in her blog that the procurement was prepared hastily during Christmas time, the market survey was formally conducted. Evka was selected to prepare the whole event.

“During the preparations it turned out that the contracts with artists will be closed and their honoraries will be paid from the ministry, on top of the contract that was signed with the Evka agency,” Hlávková writes and explains that this, as well as the rental of the theatre, directly increased the ministry’s expenses. Moreover, the type of contracts that the ministry signed with the artists did not need to be published in the central register of contracts.

Smer links?

Hlávková claims that the staff at her department was aware that the event was to be organised by an agency that also prepared the ceremonial congress of the ruling Smer party in December 2015.

The ruling party insists there are no links between it and the agency. But the information obtained by the Sme daily points to business links between Evka head Miroslav Strašifták and people who share a common past with Smer deputy chair and Finance Minister Peter Kazimir.

Furthermore, as Hlávková points out in her blog and as is obvious from the visuals, the presentation that Evka supplied to the ministry resembles Smer’s election campaign video from 2015.

Opening concert – another large-scale event

Hlávková also describes the preparation of another major event, the presidency’s opening concert that the ministry organised in cooperation with the Viva Musica! agency. The agency was originally addressed in August 2015 and the original budget was projected at €20,000. But the agency did not find the proposed format of the concert attractive enough, Hlávková writes, and promised to come up with an alternative, which the minister approved without the budget in October 2015. One month later, the ministry received a budget of €140,000. By the time Hlávková took over the project in January 2016, the budget was already exceeding €230,000, she writes.

There was neither a tender nor a market survey to procure an organiser for that event, Hlávková notes. She complained to her superiors that the budget was excessive and needed to be reduced, but they only told her that the whole thing was beyond their reach, she writes in her blog. Hlávková resigned on February 16.

The Viva Musica! agency’s Matej Drlička spoke up at the conference Hlávková and TIS held on Monday November 21, and said that the blog they wrote is full of half-truths and inaccuracies.

“I consider it abhorrent that this project that so many musicians participated in, should end up as a scandal,” he said as quoted by the Sme daily. Drlička claims that the event hosted 200 artists from all EU member states who stayed here for a week, and it cost altogether €170,000 of which €123,000 was paid from the ministry and the rest was secured by sponsors. He said he was ready to show the contracts to the journalists by the end of the week.

Minister did not respond

Hlávková decided to notify Minister Lajčák and State Secretary Ivan Korcok about the murky dealings that she encountered at the presidency department. She met the minister on March 11 and described it as taking place “in a peculiar atmosphere”.

“He told me that my youthful ideals are sympathetic, but that the heart must go hand in hand with reason,” Hlávková recalls in her blog. There are cartels and background agreements in the IT, for example, and the state can do nothing about it and must adjust, the minister told Hlávková, according to her blog.

She was offered to return to the ministry, possibly to another department, but she declined. Later, in July, she shared her story with TIS, who looked into her allegations and found that the budgets indeed increased significantly compared with the original plans. The ministry failed to share any documents about the tender that Evka won, or the contracts with artists who were paid on top of the bill for Evka. The ministry also refused to share the documentation regarding the selection of the agency to organise the opening concert, TIS director Gabriel Šípoš writes on the blog.

Read also: Authorities to investigate Foreign Ministry scandal a year onward Read more 

TIS filed official motions with the Supreme Audit Office, the Anti-Monopoly Office, and the Public Procurement Office. The General Prosecutor's Office is dealing with the suspicions as well, according to Sme reports.

“We also call on minister Lajčák to face the problems and publish all, including the so-far unlawfully hidden documentation to the aforementioned tenders and either prove that his ministry observes ethical and legal rules, or draw clear responsibility from the flaws and do everything to make sure the unlawfully used resources are returned to the state,” Šípoš writes.

The ministry did not respond to the call by publishing any documents so far. The ministry’s spokesperson Peter Stano stressed in the statement for The Slovak Spectator that the presidency is keeping within the budget and there have been no increases – rather the contrary. The ministry refutes the claims of Hlávková and TIS.

“A former employee makes statements about things that she could not have complete knowledge of, given her job position, things that have nothing to do with her job description and exceed the time her work lasted, since she left in the first phase of preparations,” Stano wrote.

There have been 64 events within the Slovak presidency so far, costing altogether €8 million. Everything is in line with the law and all necessary documents have been published, the ministry claims and accuses Hlávková of basing her accusations only on “subjective impressions and partial information out of context”.

“The ministry has nothing to hide and therefore it request the respective state bodies to check all the presidency-related procurements,” Stano wrote.

Whistleblowing law ignored?

Lawyers addressed by the Sme daily, however, say that Lajčák should have responded to the claims as presented to him by Hlávková in her letter and during their meeting in March. By not doing so, he might have violated the law on the protection of whistleblowers from 2014, which was presented by the then and current interior minister, Robert Kalinak, as an important tool in the fight against corruption.

Based on the law, the ministry should have made an official record of Hlávková’s claim, investigate the matter, and inform her about the result of the investigation within three months.

For failing to do so, the ministry could face a fine of up to €20,000 based on the law. The institution overseeing the observance of the law, which is authorised to issue the fine, is the respective work inspectorate. The Bratislava-based inspectorate is pondering carrying out an audit at the ministry next year, Sme reported.

Lajčák claims he had Hlávková’s allegations checked following their meeting but no discrepancies have been found, he told the November 23 press conference. There was no official motion from Hlávková that would allow him to act officially, he added.

“I would describe [our meeting] differently than she did,” Lajčák told journalists.

Students stand up for Zuzana

Amid the angered reactions of the government who deny Hlávková’s claims, the young former ministry professional has won the support of part of the society.

Her former colleague Pavol Szalai stepped forward to support her story. He also left the ministry in February 2016.

Hlávková was one of the candidates offered a position at the ministry through the LEAF programme, which aims to bring talented young professionals back to the country.

The LEAF organisation later informed that they were intending to end cooperation with the ministry in the aftermath of the allegations.

“As a graduate in cultural studies at the Scottish University of St Andrews, I wanted to come back home after several years abroad, and contribute with my work to the good image of Slovakia,” Hlávková writes in her blog post.

Slovak students studying at universities abroad wrote a letter in her support, which was signed by hundreds online within the first day. In the letter, they say they consider Hlávková to be one of them, they thank her for her courage and claim her story shows it is not easy to return to Slovakia.

“Our drive and willingness to move Slovakia forward will hit the walls of established practices that will not be easy to overcome,” their letter reads and continues by saying that her courage should be an inspiration and an example “because she personally and publicly fights for the values that we consider of vital importance for the future of our country”.

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