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12° Nicosia,
25 June, 2024
 
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''It is, therefore, right that I resign''

''...in institutionally immature countries, officials often persist in their roles as if nothing untoward occurred...''

Opinion

Opinion

By Charidimos Tsoukas*

I wrote in my previous article ("How the prestige of the institutions is undermined", Kathimerini, 7/1/24) that, based on the conclusion of the auditors of the Independent Anti-Corruption Authority and announcements of the Audit Service, the Assistant Attorney General Mr. Savvas Angelides, in deciding to suspend the prosecution of an accused, ignored the obvious conflict of interest in this case (the accused was a former client of the law firm where he worked and a current client of the former law firm where his wife works). What happens in institutionally mature countries when there is evidence, or even suspicion, of a conflict of interest in a public official's decision-making? Here are three examples.

First example. In 2015, the UK's Chief Probation Officer, Mr Paul McDowell, resigned from his post (on a salary of £135,000 per annum) when it was revealed that his wife's company had won contracts for projects run by his agency. In his letter of resignation, Mr McDowell wrote, among other things, "It is imperative that the Service both be and appear to be independent. Although we have taken steps to manage any conflict of interest and I have always performed my duties without fear or favor, it is clear that the perception (perception) of a conflict of interest regarding my position remains. It is therefore right that I should resign" ("Guardian", 2/2/2015).

Second example. Last year, Mr Richard Sharpe resigned as chairman of the BBC when he was found to have breached the rules for public appointments. An investigation by the Public Appointments Commissioner concluded that Mr. Sharpe had failed to declare his involvement in arranging a personal guarantee of an £800,000 loan from an acquaintance to then Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Mr. Sharpe said he had not realized he had to declare his involvement during the recruitment process. "The breach was inadvertent," he said.

The commissioner ruled that, whatever his intentions, by failing to declare his involvement, Mr. Sharpe created a "potential perceived conflict of interest". His investigation found that Mr. Johnson had personally approved Mr. Sharpe's appointment "while the people who conducted the supposedly independent recruitment process for the post had already been informed that Sharpe was the only candidate the government would support" ("Guardian", 28/4/23). The Commissioner's investigation also states that other candidates for the post of President were discouraged from standing because of the rumor that the post had been given to Mr. Sharpe, who, incidentally, was a sponsor of the ruling Conservative Party.

Third example. The investigator in the Qatargate scandal case, Mr. Michel Cles, in which MEPs (including the Greek Ms Eva Kaili) are allegedly involved, has resigned from the case, following a complaint from the lawyer of the suspected MEP Mr. Mark Tarabella. The complaint concerned the fact that the son of Mr. Klez and the son of the MEP Maria Arenas, whose name was mentioned in the scandal but who was not suspected or charged, had set up a company and had known each other for a long time ("Politico", 19/6/23).

In its statement, the Belgian Federal Prosecutor's Office said: "In order to allow the judicial system to continue its work unhindered and to maintain the necessary separation between private and family life and professional obligations, the investigating magistrate Michel Klez has informed us that he has decided tonight to withdraw from the case. This is despite the absence of any factual evidence that could call into question the honesty of any of the parties involved and the important work he and the investigators have done in this case" ("Kathimerini", 19/6/23).

This is what happens in northern Europe: in nations with a longstanding institutional tradition of the rule of law, a collection of self-evident assumptions has been crafted regarding the conduct of public officials. In such cases, where there is even a hint, let alone concrete evidence, that an official made decisions while under a conflict of interest, the customary course of action is resignation. The rationale is straightforward: trust in the integrity of their judgment becomes compromised, casting shadows over their decisions. The lingering question remains – whether personal or institutional interests took precedence.

Conversely, in institutionally immature countries, officials often persist in their roles as if nothing untoward occurred. The notion of uttering the phrase "it is therefore right that I should resign" doesn't cross their minds. Authorities seem oblivious, with even competent bodies like the Independent Anti-Corruption Authority accepting their blatantly self-serving excuses.

During his speech at the confirmation ceremony for the new ministers following the recent reshuffle, President Christodoulides, among other moralistic admonitions, stated: "We serve the public and not private interests" ("Kathimerini", 10/1/23). While this sentiment holds true, the quandary arises when an official lacks conviction in truly serving the public interest. In such a situation, what does one's institutional role dictate as the appropriate course of action, Mr. President?

A rhetorical question hangs in the air, leaving a sense of hopelessness, not just in Nicosia but perhaps also in Brussels.

*Mr. Charidimos Tsoukas is a professor at the University of Cyprus and a corresponding member of the Cyprus Academy of Sciences, Letters and Arts.

[This op-ed was translated from its Greek original and may have been edited for brevity and coherence]

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