Voters in Srednjebosanski Canton (SBK) stand a good chance of casting ballots in this week’s general elections for officials headed into courtrooms rather than office.
Dragan Popović, deputy chief prosecutor for the canton in Travnik, confirmed to the Center for Investigative Reporting in Sarajevo (CIN) that his office is pursuing a corruption investigation against 21 current and former SBK officials linked to crimes in office. The investigation was prompted by a Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina Financial Police report completed in early 2003.
In that 144-page report officials, who range from deputies to the cantonal prime minister, were linked to a variety of offenses that cost taxpayers 1.2 million KM between 1997 and 2001.
No official has so far been reprimanded, removed from office or otherwise affected. Most, like Ljerka Marić, then cantonal and currently state financial minister of finance and treasury, have stayed in their current positions or even advanced.
Some have left government to take other positions involving public trust, including president of the BiH Concession Commission.
And this week, nine of the people Financial Police pointed a finger at will be seeking re-election or new jobs, according to the Central Election Commission (CIK BiH).
Popović, who has faced criticism about moving too slowly in the case, won permission from the Cantonal Court in Travnik earlier this month for a broader investigation and has assigned five prosecutors, half his staff, to collect information. They hauled in two vanfuls of records from the SBK government building last week.
Nothing in BiH law keeps candidates suspected of corruption off election lists, and political party officials say they see no problem with the practice. But clean government advocates warn that the price of not acting decisively and quickly on possible public corruption is voter apathy and distrust.
Vehid Šehić, one of seven CIK members, says that CIK acts if there are final court verdicts against candidates on the election rosters that come in from political parties.
‘We are only interested if someone has been sentenced to six months or more. Up to six months, nothing’ says Šehić.
Actually, Branko Golub, a former SBK governor who is named in the Financial Police report, was sentenced in January to 10 months in prison, later reduced to six, for unrelated abuse of office charges.
The verdict said that in 1999 he funneled 45,367 KM from the Chamber of Commerce of the former Heceg-Bosna to the Croatian Democratic Union of BiH. He continues to appeal that verdict.
Most of the charges detailed in the Financial Police report carry possible penalties of six months to three years.
Šehić said there was no valid reason to replace the names of: Golub or of Mirko Batinić, Zahid Mustajbegović, Zdenko Antunović, Josip Kvasina, Slavica Josipović, Asim Mekić, Tončo Bavrka, and Rudo Vidović.
Srđan Blagovčanin of Transparency International in BiH, an organization that works to suppress corruption and make officials accountable, said he doesn’t know about charges against SBK officials, but he is not surprised.
‘Our cantons look more like feudal estates then like real units of local or cantonal administration, where there were and still are many cases of malpractice’ he said.
CIN spoke with 18 of the 21 suspects. Two, including Marić, were out of the country and could not be reached, and the last scheduled then ducked an interview. Most of them said they didn’t remember giving statements to the financial police and were unaware of a criminal complaint. A few admitted possible wrongdoing.
What Financial Police found
Prosecutor Popović said his office has had to split the wide-ranging corruption report into multiple cases organized by offenses that groups of suspects may have committed together.
Among the multiple offenses Financial Police tracked was the improper expenditure of 540,000 KM in separation allowances on 58 canton employees, in violation of canton law, between 1997 and 2001. The report indicates that some employees collected the allowance, intended to cover expenses for employees who live in distant cities, even when their homes were within walking distance of the government building or they had official drivers and cars.
Officials are also suspected of violating cantonal policy on vacations by collecting holiday pay in advance of time off.
Police alleged that officials also misused funds meant for refugees and development, and claimed money for business trips they never really took.
Police also delved into the 261,337 KM purchase of a half-hectare of land near a Travnik elementary school for a detention center. The money went to Abdulahim Maktouf, a former businessman and convicted war criminal.
Six years after the purchase, the canton still is without a detention center, mostly because of outraged parents who wrote complaints to officials at the prospects of their children being in close proximity to serious criminal suspects everyday.
According to the Financial Police report, the budget abuse started when the SBK government was supposed to move into two new buildings.
Police found minutes from a meeting about evaluating bids that mentions the Center of Entrepreneurship and Investment d.o.o. Vitez as having the best of seven bids to furnish and equip the offices. But, police could find no published bid or any set procedure for assessing the bids.
Police suspect that Ivo Garić, then owner and director of the center and now an employee of the SBK general department, benefited from the deal by collecting tax money from the canton but not turning it over to the state. The Financial Police report alleges that he evaded 42,000 KM worth of taxes.
Garić denies any wrong-doing and claims that he did a proper job.
‘I was awarded the contract at the bidding and we got the job done. We paid everything we were supposed to pay and there was no problem about it’ he claims.
Other suspects similarly deny collecting improper allowances.
Golub, then the canton’s governor and now cantonal minister of education, said he knows he never got the 11,000 KM in separation pay Financial Police allege. ‘This is big money for me and it would have been good if I had received it, but I didn’t.’
Popović said it’s possible that some of the 58 employees mentioned in the report never actually saw the allowance paid in their name.
Fuad Kasumović, then deputy minister of finances, along with the cantonal President Zeir Mlivo and his deputy Mirko Batinić and Marić, all face prosecution for signing off on payments for themselves and other officials.
‘What was the point of this? We don’t know. They might have wanted to improve their pay’ said Popović.
Mlivo admitted to CIN: “It is possible that the government made wrong decisions. I don’t exclude the possibility that out of 1,000 decisions there was none wrong.”
‘If we’re found guilty, we’ll answer for that and move on’ he said, ‘Such is life.’
The Financial Police has not been the only agency to find money problems in SBK. Annual audits of the canton by federation auditors for the years between 2000 and 2004 also point to irregularities in the payment of benefits and awarding of privileges.
For 2002, for example, auditors could find no receipts or even a monthly bus fare that could account for the thousands of KM paid out to government workers for commuting. They also found that some officials were paid double allowances for travel, enough to pay for bus fare and fuel for an official car. And there were no records to equate fuel use with mileage driven while on business. Officials used their work cars and phones for personal business without regulation, the auditors said.
In a 2003 audit, canton officials were scolded for inappropriate use of special funds. Auditors found that the canton paid a Zagreb company 67,000 KM to make a map showing the distribution of minerals in the area, but they could find no map. Officials paid 80,000 KM for a medical waste disposal system, too, but auditors could find no signs of that equipment.
Mild penalties for corruption
If the Financial Police allegations are proved in court, former cantonal officials face mild sentences at worst. ‘The law spells out that a sentence can go from six months to two years. Or we have at least three years’ said Popović.
Suspects also might be ordered to pay back money collected illegally.
Imprisonment for corruption, especially for less than six months, doesn’t necessarily mean the end of a politician’s career.
Blagovčanin said lack of action on Financial Police suspicions, lack of remorse, lack of attention from party leaders and the public, and mild sentences if any from courts all has an effect on public corruption in a country.
‘How can it be possible’ he said, ‘that nobody has ever been held accountable for anything whatsoever? This all sends the following message to citizens: we’re burning your money and we don’t give a damn about you…’