The Agency for the Prevention of Corruption is not transparent and has a non-uniform approach to public officials, while asset declarations for the last year are currently available for only five ministers in the Government, none of which gave Agency consent to access his/her bank accounts.
This was stated at the Panel Discussion “Verification of Asset Declarations and Conflict of Interest – Reforms or Status Quo?”, organised by Institute Alternative (IA) in the framework of the project “Towards Qualitative Signs of the Anti-corruption Efficacy”, implemented with the support of the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
Public Policy Researcher in IA, Ana Đurnić, said that the key problem is that the two related areas, prevention of conflict of interest of public officials and control of asset declarations are artificially separated in the Agency for the Prevention of Corruption.
“These are completely separate processes conducted by different persons and in different sectors. We recognised this as a key issue and the Agency confirmed to us that when they cross-check asset declarations of public officials they do not check whether there is a conflict of interest, which they evidently could do on the basis of the data declared by public officials and civil servants in their asset declaration”, explained Đurnić.
There are at least two cases confirming that the Agency does not deal with the conflict of interest when working on verification of asset declaration, said Đurnić.
“The first case is the case of the former Minister of European Affairs Andrija Pejović, whose asset declaration was cross-checked by the Agency, but it failed to register an obvious conflict of interest. Only in the repeated procedure have they found that there was a conflict of interest and performance of incompatible functions. On the other hand, there is the case of Zoran Jelić, who, while serving as an MP, also served as a civil servant employed in the Employment Agency of Montenegro, “said Đurnić.
She considers that it is not enough for the Agency for the Prevention of Corruption to only determine if a public official has reported all that he or she owns, but it also needs to check whether the functions he/she performs result in a conflict of interest and whether officials receive compensations “which they receive regularly from the citizens’ money”, in line with the law.
The Agency for the Prevention of Corruption is not transparent and has non-uniform approach to different public officials, emphasised Đurnić.
“According to the public opinion survey conducted by the Ipsos Agency in November 2017, only 22 percent of citizens believe that the Agency works how it should, i.e., that it treats all public officials in the same manner, regardless of whether they come from ruling or opposition parties. About 40 percent of citizens consider that the Agency is more likely to treat preferentially the officials of the ruling party than to do the same with the opposition officials, “said Đurnić.
The most important but least performed type of control that the Agency for the Prevention of Corruption performs, as she clarified, is a complete check.
“We recognized as an issue that, as a prerequisite for this type of control, the Agency’s bylaw prescribes presence of indications based on facts that the person to whom the data refers to has declared inaccurate, incomplete information or that there is a disproportionate increase of assets ” said Đurnić.
She explained that no matter what the public officials own and how they acquired money to buy assets, the Agency will not deal with it until there is a large increase or a public official forgets to report some assets.
The number of checks in which the Agency for the Prevention of Corruption verified the origin of assets is at the lowest level, stated Đurnić.
“In 2017, there were only 25 checks of this kind, while in 2016 there were 49. And in all these checks it was established that the public official proved the origin of his/her assets, ie, the Agency found there is nothing to contest in the checks it conducted, “said Đurnić.
She noted that the Agency for the Prevention of Corruption stated that more than 70 percent of public officials and civil servants gave consent for access to their bank accounts, but she underlines that this statistics is worse at the level of highest public officials.
“Half of the Government did not give consent to the Agency to access their bank accounts in 2016, while in 2017, asset declarations are available for only five ministers in the Government so far and none of them gave their consent to the Agency to access bank accounts, “said Đurnić.
She pointed out that the Director of the Agency for the Prevention of Corruption and his assistant are among those who did not give consent for access to their bank accounts.
“There is also the Prime Minister himself, as the highest office in the Government, who also does not want the Agency to control his bank accounts. The highest public officials should be on the list of priorities, not the local public officials at the lowest levels, “said Đurnić.
According to her, the Agency for the Prevention of Corruption cannot justify its lack of performance with the lack of capacity.
“The Agency has a statutory minimum budget that has to be allocated to it and it amounts to 0.2 percent of the current budget for that year. About 20 percent of the minimum budget that the Agency is provided with each year remains non-distributed. It is important to note that in two years the Agency spent about 70 thousand euros on temporary service contracts, “said Đurnić.
She said that when it comes to connecting to institutions’ databases, the Agency for the Prevention of Corruption is still not connected to the Public Procurement Administration.
“It is very important that the Agency determines who is connected to whom in the public procurement system, that is, what companies are linked to public officials, so that this perhaps most obvious conflict of interest is prevented or processed in cases where the damage has already been done,” said Đurnić.
Monitoring coordinator in the NGO Network for Affirmation of NGO Sector (MANS), Zorica Ćeranić, said that the data is disappointing as in 2016 and 2017 only 40 misdemeanor proceedings were initiated, which, as she said, is a very small number in relation to four, five thousand public officials and civil servants checked.
“It is worrisome that no case has been sent to the prosecution, and that during cross-checking of assets, the Agency only checks what the officials declared. They do not undertake a deeper analysis, i.e. a deeper check of assets that are not declared and shown in asset declarations, “assessed Ćeranić.
Public Policy Researcher in IA, Dina Bajramspahić, believes that the work of the Agency for the Prevention of Corruption will be rendered meaningless if it is reduced to the collection of asset declarations of public officials.
“After submitting asset declaration for so many years, public officials have to a large degree perfected these declarations. Those who did not know that high-value weapons are to be declared, now declare them. Those who did not now that paintings are to be declared, now declare them and declarations are copy pasted from year to year “said Bajramspahić.
She considers it crucial to follow differences of assets value in relation to income.
“If there is an example that a public official has acquired an apartment of 200 square meters, and in that year he/she earned 20 or 30 or even 40 thousand euros, the Agency is obliged to register that difference and call a public official to say which money covered this property value,” Bajramspahić said.
Executive Director of Politikon Network, Jovana Marović, believes that the core issue is that the Agency for the Prevention of Corruption is not independent since its beginning.
“Apart from the lack of independence and impartiality of the Agency, the European Union (EU) also points to the lack of expertise. In the most recent report on the state of play in chapters 23 and 24, EU points out serious shortcomings in justifying decisions related to conflict of interest. The problem is that the Agency cannot appropriately justify its decisions because they are not in line with what they should be, “Marović said.
The Secretary General of the Ombudsman, Ivan Krkeljić, said that the Law on Prevention of Corruption is not harmonized with the Law on Administrative Procedure.
“In the Law on Administrative Procedure there is a basic principle of declaring data ex officio. This would mean that, if these two laws were harmonised, the Agency for the Prevention of Corruption would have to determine facts relating to public officials ex officio, “Krkeljić explained.
Assistant Director of Public Procurement Administration, Mara Bogavac, said that this institution, in accordance with law and established practice, has cooperation with the Agency for the Prevention of Corruption in the form of exchange of necessary information and “has signed an agreement on mutual cooperation in order to strengthen administrative capacities of all representatives in the public procurement system “.