What it took to get a list of names of debtor companies

Companies and government agencies that have failed to pay contributions for their workers have left pension funds in the two entities short by more than a 630 million KM according to the latest data that ends in 2005.

That means nearly 556,000 pensioners across Bosnia and Herzegovina are getting less money than they should in their monthly checks.

Yet, when the Center for Investigative Reporting in Sarajevo (CIN) asked for the names of these debtors who are hurting the elderly and possibly committing a crime, pension fund officials in response delayed, declined or gave out only partial lists.

CIN reporters asked for the names, as allowed by the Free Access to Information Law. This law requires that officials give out information important for citizens to understand how their government works.

After 15 days, the maximum time officials may take to respond to requests for information, pension fund officials did respond. They said no.

Nadir Kovačević, the director of the Pension and Disability Insurance Fund of the Federation of BiH (FBiH), said that while his agency is in charge of payments to the pension fund, the law gives only the Tax Administration of FBiH the authority to force those payments. He told CIN to get the list from tax officials.

Zoran Zovko, the director of economic and financial affairs for the fund, also refused to give CIN information on how many people work for the fund and what they earn.

After another 15 days of waiting, Midhat Arifović, director of the Tax Administration of FBiH, responded that he too could not give out the names of companies that owed the government money because this information was secret.

Slavko Bašić, then director of the Pension and Disability Insurance Fund of the Republika Srpska (RS), also refused to give out names of debtors. He said the law only allowed the publication of statistical information of general interest.

He directed CIN to the RS Tax Administration. That agency also told CIN that information about who owes the government money is a ‘tax secret.’ Since the interview, Bašić has been dismissed from his post.

CIN next appealed to the fund directors to reconsider the seemingly nonsensical protection of privacy for organizations that may be violating the law and hurting the elderly.

Kovačević promised cooperation, pointing out that the FBiH fund found more than 370 million KM of debt during an internal audit of the period between 1992 and 2005.

This included debt owed to the old ‘Hrvatska Republika HercegBosna’ pension fund, which was merged with the current federation fund at the start of 2002. However, CIN reporters had to obtain a separate list of organizations that had contributed to the old fund, which required more delay and confusion.

Despite the director’s pledge, CIN did not get a list of the debtors and appealed for a second time to Kovačević. He then ordered a clerk to make the list, which she did – as soon as she returned from sick leave and a business trip.

That list, however, was not complete. It contained just a few names representing the biggest debtors.

Four months after first making its request, CIN finally received a list that officials said was complete.

Back in the RS, Radmila Mihić, a spokeswoman for the RS Ministry of Finance where CIN had appealed for help, said that the identity of who owes pension contributions is not a tax secret.

Just the opposite, she said, ‘whoever is not paying taxes is committing a crime. That is why that information is public and not at all secret.’

CIN went back to Bašić, and this time got a list – but only of the top 30 debtors. Next, Ostoja Popović, deputy director general of the RS Fund, promised to compile a full list. It took 20 more days.

‘To collect data from all offices, six of them, takes time’ he said, when asked why a list wasn’t readily available. ‘It is a big job, after all.’

Because Bašić said that the RS Tax Administration had the names of debtors who have been charged with failing to pay contributions, CIN submitted a request to the Tax Administration for those names.

Administration officials responded promptly that they had submitted five criminal reports in 2006 which included charges for failure to pay pension fund contributions. But they would not name the companies because, ‘they are secret.’

Ivan Vučković, a spokesman for the administration, said the information could only be given to police, court or ministry officials who asked for it. None have asked.

CIN then asked the tax administration in the federation if any companies there were facing charges there for not paying pension fund contributions. The officials said this was secret information that could not be given out.

CIN continues to seek a full list of all government and business agencies that are behind in pension contributions and the names of those that have been charged.