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14 April, 2021
 
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Government ups rhetoric against auditor

Constitutional crisis continues after audit office publishes damning report on golden passport scandal

Newsroom

The Cypriot government hinted over the weekend it might refer the auditor general to the Supreme Court over “indecent” behaviour, after the audit office published yet another damning report alleging offences in a Cabinet decision to grant investor passports to individuals linked to a casino project without meeting the criteria.

There was a lot of chatter online over the weekend and Monday morning after Attorney General George Savvides on Friday slammed Auditor General Odysseas Michaelides over the latter’s decision to publish a report on golden passports, a month after the two men had met in an effort to settle their differences over the issue of probing the passport scandal.

Savvides, who was a member of the President’s Cabinet as justice minster before assuming his new position in the summer, had advised the government’s interior ministry not to share files with Michaelides pertaining to the golden passport scandal, citing the public’s interest and an ongoing ad-hoc investigation.

Cyprus’ chief law enforcement officer had also asked Michaelides to abstain from further public discussions on the matter, with the auditor saying he respected the government’s decision but vowing to continue probing the matter.

On Friday the audit office published an online a report titled “Audit of Granting of Cypriot Citizenship to Company Executives as part of the Cyprus Investment Programme” implicating members of the Cabinet in alleged criminal offences over granting golden passports as well as alleging attempts by the government to obstruct the audit office’s investigation.

The report alleged abuse of power by public officials, not precluding a former interior minister, through “ignoring the legal and regulatory framework and basically assuming they could act indiscriminately.”

But on Monday morning, government spokesperson Kyriacos Koushos slammed Michaelides on state radio, saying the administration’s position on the auditor’s behaviour was crystal clear but stopped short of confirming plans to request his removal from duties.

“The auditor is acting on a purely political and personal agenda, undermining other independent officials and turning the institution which he serves as appointed official into an opposition branch,” Koushos said.

The report implicates members of the Cabinet in possible criminal offences over granting golden passports and alleges attempts by the government to obstruct an investigation

According to political pundits and legal experts the government is preparing to take Michaelides to the Supreme Court, accusing him of “overstepping his constitutional boundaries of authority” while basing their accusation solely on the public’s interest.

Koushos also accused the auditor of having a history of past confrontations with a number of other independent institutions and officials, saying his “improper behaviour” was well known and had to stop.

But Audit Office spokesperson Marios Petrides on Monday rejected the accusations, saying on state radio that the department was waiting to hear from the government to explain how exactly the office overstepped its authorities and on what basis was Michaelides’ behaviour considered indecent.

Koushos criticized the auditor general for carrying out an agenda of political opposition against the government, saying an independent probe assigned by the state’s attorney general was the only way forward in getting to the bottom of the passport scandal, adding that partial and incomplete probes had no business being in the public eye.

The audit office acknowledged some information was lacking but stated in the report that the information had not been provided by the interior ministry. In some cases, the report had to assume some individuals were company executives or investors but had no concrete information to confirm it due to blocked access ordered by the attorney general.

“Audit departments around the globe carry out their probes and publicize their findings, and we will certainly appear before the independent committee and provide more details including names and addresses,” Petrides added, referring to information they had been able to collect thus far through other sources.

The audit official said the report also pointed to alleged offences including false information in applications through the Citizenship by Investment Programme.

“We found parking lots and empty plots of land at physical addresses which were included in the documents,” Petrides said, while the report listed a number of occasions where there was no actual private residence at a location where construction should have taken place.

Koushos insisted that the executive branch of the government had absolute authority in granting honorary citizenships to outstanding individuals, citing the public’s interest.

He also said in the case of a casino project, a €600 million investment, it was up to fellow citizens to determine whether there was a valid reason to approve passports to 18 executives as well as their family members, insisting that the audit office had no say in such political decisions.

But Marios Petrides, who said he agreed that political decisions were outside the audit office's purview, pointed out that the report cited information showing then interior minister - current Finance Minster Constantinos Petrides - had requested expedited process on those applications and backed a decision by the Cabinet on 25 July 2019 to grant citizenships based on the investor scheme.

It was understood that the former interior and finance ministers were present at the Cabinet meeting in question with the audit department’s spokesperson pointing out that the granting of passports took place two years after a business agreement had been signed on a casino project, adding that the individuals were carrying out contractual work and at no time were there passport criteria during the bidding process.

The report also probed 64 naturalizations between 2014 and 2017 linked to another foreign company and found cases where contracts on real estate sales had been submitted through the passport applications but title and deeds were never transferred. It also alleges that none of the 64 individuals met all the passport scheme criteria while most of them had not met any of the criteria.

Two months ago, the current finance minister denied wrongdoing when he was at the helm of the interior ministry, while also categorically denying insinuations heard in a secret Al Jazeera video that he met with the former House Speaker to discuss specific investor applicants.

“This is something to be revealed after the completion of the investigation,” Constantinos Petrides said about possible allegations against him.

“If there is one thing I regret is that I didn’t insist on abolishing the programme sooner,” Petrides added.

An ongoing probe into the scandal aims to unearth any corruption or irregularities that may have taken place within the CIP. The chair of the committee recently said a three-pile review system was being used to separate cases based on how they were treated in the programme regarding political risk, namely high, medium, and low.

It remained to be seen whether the government would call on a special committee of the Supreme Court to look into the auditor general’s recent actions. It was also unclear whether the constitutionality of the auditor’s probe, his behaviour, or both, could be brought into question before the highest court in the land.

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