Following revelations by a whistleblower, Transparency International has uncovered tricks for funding projects without going through public procurement procedures. EurActiv Slovakia reports.
Transparency International has thrown its weight behind a whistleblower, Zuzana Hlávková, who was a member of the team responsible for cultural activities for the Slovak Presidency at the Slovak Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs. She has resigned since.
Hlávková joined the team responsible for cultural activities for the Slovak Presidency in July 2015. She resigned from her job in February 2016, after what she describes as being pushed to go along with a dubious selection of event agencies that were to organise expensive events.
One of the events concerned the presentation of the logo of the presidency, and another one the opening concert of the Slovak Presidency. Both events took place in Bratislava.
Press conference or gala event?
In contrast with other presidencies, where the logo is presented at a press conference, a decision was made at the Foreign Affairs Ministry to hold an expensive and high-profile cultural event at the Slovak National Theatre, featuring various artists, and a laser show, hosting members of the government. The event took place just two weeks before the general election, which was held in March 2016.
The Smer-Social Democrats (Smer-SD) party of Prime Minister Robert Fico lost its majority and will have difficulties forming a coalition government, following elections held on 5 March. The new parliament will be extremely fragmented, with neo-Nazi and protest parties present, leading to speculation about early elections. EurActiv Slovakia reports.
According to Hlávková, the idea of holding a big event instead of a more modest one, as well as its pre-election timing, came from a newly hired “media advisor” at the ministry, Zuzana Ťapáková, a former executive director of a private Slovak TV channel, and rumoured candidate for the highest post at the Slovak public broadcaster (RTVS), a vacancy to be filled next year and which requires a vote in parliament.
The agency that has been selected for the presidency logo presentation event is the same that took care, among other things, of big party events for the former governing party of Prime Minister Robert Fico SMER-SD, now serving his third term.
As shown by the Transparency International inquiries – with whom Hlávková shared her insight – the ministry was only able to select the agency without a proper public procurement by artificially lowering the budget and paying some costs out of its own budget separately. That way, they could claim to use the so-called “Presidency exemption” from classic public procurement procedures defined in a specially adopted law.
The ministry had vowed not to misuse the exemption.
In July, when asked by EurActiv.sk about the costs of the logo event, the ministry said the budget was €200,000. In reality, it was around €300,000, Hlávková claims.
Just to compare, the cost for the logo and accompanying design manual, authored by a graphic design student and chosen via a contest, was €4,500.
Similarly, another presidency-related event – the opening concert – was procured in an unusual manner, Hlávková claims.
Meeting with Lajčák
At a certain point, Hlávková refused to go along and filed her resignation. Before that, she approached the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Miroslav Lajčák, with a letter, explaining her reasons and asking for a meeting.
She was first received by the chief of staff at the ministry, who, as she explains, acknowledged “not everything being kosher”, but still legal.
Then Hlávková was able to get a meeting with Lajčák himself.
“He said that he likes my youthful idealism, but that the heart must go hand in hand with reason,” she said.
Asked why the ministry lied to journalists, Lajčák allegedly said that the media are ill-wishing and not objective, and that they only care about the money, not the content.
On the role of the “media advisor” Zuzana Ťapáková, Lajčák allegedly replied she was “sent by the Prime Minister”, so that they (the Ministry) could “somehow use” her know-how.
According to Hlávková’s recollection of the talk, Lajčák also asked whether her decision to quit her job is final. He asked her to come back to any department of her choosing, given her excellent evaluation. She refused.
After that, Hlávková approached Transparency International in Slovakia, which requested that the ministry and other parties involved, provide relevant documents and information, like those linked to the selection process for the event agencies – which they, for the most part, have not shared.
The chief of the Slovak TI office, Gabriel Šípoš, said that there was no doubt that the ministry used funds that “it has hidden from the public”.
A trick used was that the contract was artificially divided so that it conforms with a legal exemption of the public procurement process, while covering the rest of the costs from other sources.
Transparency International also believes that it is highly likely that the ministry broke the law while preparing the opening concert of the Presidency. Transparency International filled a motion with the Supreme Audit Office, the Office for Public Procurement and the Antimonopoly office.
MFA: Everything was done in line with the law
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs rejected all accusations, saying that Hlávková was commenting on issues of which she did not have the full knowledge.
“All of the public procurements are in line with the law,” the official statement reads. It must be added, however, that this is a phrase already being mocked by the public, as it is too often used to avert any allegations of government misconduct in Slovakia.
The official reaction further states that the claims by Hlávková are based on “partial information,” are drawn “out of context” and are mixed with “subjective impressions”.
Concerning Ťapáková, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs says she has no executive or decision-making powers.
The accusations are “fabricated and false”, Ťapáková is quoted as saying by the Slovak daily SME. She also said she intended to defend herself “in court” and refused to face more questions from journalists.
“The ministry has asked all relevant authorities to look into all of the presidency public procurements, as it has nothing to hide,” she said.