By Poly Pantelides
JUSTICE Minister Ionas Nicolaou yesterday criticised a unilateral decision by a panel investigating the country’s financial debacle to carry on with its public hearings without Cabinet’s go-ahead despite the panel’s backtracking on their remit.
The panel announced yesterday they were pushing ahead with hearings on the banking sector since they said Cabinet – despite their request – did not specify if they should change their mandate or whether they should carry on their work in the context of their recent decision to change the terms of their remit. “This does not prevent Cabinet from terminating the services of the committee of inquiry before a report is issued,” the announcement said.
Nicolaou said that a Cabinet meeting today had to be postponed because President Nicos Anastasiades arranged to meet European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi and could not be in Cyprus. The committee was aware of this and should have waited for a response rather than “carrying on with their operations as they have themselves defined them…,” Nicolaou said.
The three-member committee of inquiry decided in its majority last week to leave alone any matters subject to court proceedings. The panel – all former senior judges – were sworn in on a mandate to investigate criminal, civil or political responsibilities attached to the near collapse of the country’s economy and banking sector.
Last week they presented a legal argument about why they would leave alone any matters subject to court proceedings. So the attorney-general, with Nicolaou’s blessings, ordered the police chief to launch investigations with a top brass meeting pencilled in for tomorrow.
The panel was expected to hand over a report to police so they could launch their own investigations after the former studied the data available to them and completed a series of public hearings. But the government felt that criminal investigations could no longer be delayed given the inquiry’s decision, Nicolaou said.
Cyprus’ banking system came close to collapse in March following efforts to secure an EU/IMF bailout deal. The island’s second biggest bank, Laiki, is now under resolution and its biggest, the struggling Bank of Cyprus which is under restructuring, has been landed with over €9 billion amassed by Laiki via emergency liquidity assistance.
Asked why they did not anyway push ahead with criminal investigations beforehand, Nicolaou said it would have been more useful for police to work with a complete report handed over by the committee of inquiry.
He said that as a government they had wanted criminal investigations to proceed in parallel with the committee’s work, but the committee wanted to bring their work to an end first.
“Unfortunately, things developed differently,” Nicolaou said.
He added police investigations into criminal or civil responsibilities would be all-encompassing. Nicolaou added he and the attorney-general had discussed whether investigations should be delegated to an independent party but thought it “more correct” to assign the task to the police that will utilise its network of experienced staff, working alongside the state’s Unit for Combating Money Laundering (MOKAS) and the island’s Securities and Exchange Commission.
“We will also work with any experts we need, such as auditors, accountants and people understanding finance,” Nicolaou said adding police would look at any relevant data and pursue known cases and anything else might arise.
Nicolaou would not say what role – if any – the committee would now play, saying this was up to Cabinet as a whole to decide.
But he added that nonetheless the information amassed by the committee of inquiry could prove useful to investigators both as a summary of major events and because of any relevant data they may gather. “It was correct to appoint the inquiry even with the way things developed following the majority’s decision,” Nicolaou said.
The committee’s chairman Georgios Pikis said last week the law did not allow them to prosecute a person based on the findings of the committee. The panel said that when an issue is being contested in civil courts, it is “not permissible for any third party to interject in such a matter”.