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Our View: Far too much leniency towards errant public servants

Attorney-general Costas Clerides

THE PUBLIC Service Commission demoted a retired ambassador from the position of minister plenipotentiary to second officer after a disciplinary investigation found that he had forged documents and misappropriated public money, while serving as Cyprus High Commissioner in South Africa. The funds misappropriated amounted to about €70,000, according to the investigation.

The punishment – cancellation of three promotions – will mean the retired ambassador will receive a smaller monthly pension, but it was not immediately clear whether he would also have to return a part of his retirement bonus. It is a very lenient punishment, considering people have been sent to prison for the misappropriation of much smaller amounts. The fact that the ambassador had abused the trust afforded to him by the state would have justified a heavier punishment.

The truth is that the Commission does not have the authority to impose a prison sentence as it metes out punishment for disciplinary, not criminal offences. It is now up to the Attorney-General to bring charges against the disgraced diplomat and for a judge to decide whether he was guilty or not. However, it would not be a surprise if the matter was not taken further and the reduction of the pension would be considered adequate punishment, because the state has always shown leniency to errant public employees.

The pseudo-compassionate argument usually cited is that it would be cruel to deprive a public employee of his pension, which he would lose if he was found guilty of a criminal offence. It is a preposterous argument but it is indicative of the state’s tolerance to serious offences by public employees.

Some years ago, a senior counsel of the Republic had been penning abusive articles against the president of the Republic, claiming he had no legitimacy, was acting unconstitutionally, violating the law, abusing power and much more. This abuse, which went well beyond the bounds of freedom of speech, was regular.

Rather than take legal proceedings against him, the then Attorney-General, issued a decision forcing him to take early retirement so that the counsel would not lose his pension. The result was that the abusive counsel took the state to court for unfair dismissal, won and was reinstated, being paid all the salaries he had not received but also refusing to return his pension payments.

This is what happens when the law is not properly enforced so that a public employee does not lose his state pension. This clemency, which in effect is tolerance for serious wrongdoings, is indefensible. Public employees should be made to feel the full force of the law when they are found guilty of serious offences, not be let off so as not to lose their pension.

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