By Sinead Kelly,
Attorney-general Costas Clerides irked MPs on Tuesday when he said a possible conflict of interests over the Central Bank governor and a law office representing an individual being sued over the banking collapse was not his responsibility and declined to appear before the House Ethics Committee.
In a letter to the committee, Clerides said the issue “does not fall within the remit of the attorney-general nor did it necessitate the attorney-general to voice an opinion or intervene in any way.”
The matter came up after Kathimerini newspaper reported that CBC Governor Chrystalla Georghadji’s daughter is working for her former husband’s law firm, currently representing former Laiki Bank strongman Andreas Vgenopoulos in a lawsuit filed against him by the defunct lender’s administrator.
In the suit, the plaintiffs (Laiki administrators) have secured a court order for a global freeze of the assets of Vgenopoulos and other former senior Laiki executives.
The lawsuit hinges on the accusation that Vgenopoulos, while in charge at Laiki, authorised millions in loans with inadequate collateral, leading to losses for the lender, which has since folded and been absorbed by Bank of Cyprus.
Georghadji, who has previously denied any conflict of interest, was present on Tuesday.
Clerides had issued a statement saying that he had been informed of the relationship by Georghadji and expressed the certainty that, while such family relationships could be expected in a country as small as Cyprus, she could be trusted to “act independently, objectively and fairly.”
“But in any case, Legal Services remains in constant vigilance in order to ensure that no actions or omissions cause reasonable suspicions to the contrary,” Clerides’ letter said.
He added that any doubts should be dispelled because Georghadji had an important role to play in cleaning up the banking system.
Members of the committee expressed displeasure at Clerides’ absence, but also his view that the matter did not fall within his remit.
“Members of the committee judged that the attorney-general’s presence was necessary, to guide us during parliamentary scrutiny but also since he did take a stance in public,” chairman Phidias Sarikas said.
AKEL and DIKO said the attorney-general’s presence was necessary.
AKEL MP Aristos Damianou said an effort would be made to discuss the matter at a later date in Clerides’ presence.
Former DIKO chairman Marios Garoyian said Clerides’ presence was necessary for such an important matter.
“It is naïve for one to claim that because Cyprus is small, relatives do not affect procedures,” Garoyian said.
The Greens’ deputy Yiorgos Perdikis said Clerides’ refusal to address the committee raised an “institutional issue.”
He criticised the Attorney General’s argument that the size of a country mandates a relative tolerance towards issues of family conflicts.
“It leads one to wonder whether the length and depth of institutional authorities is incumbent on a country’s size,” Perdikis said.
Late on Tuesday, Clerides issued a statement clarifying his position and countering Perdikis’ attacks.
He explained that Legal Services, under the mandate of oversight and guidance to the police’s ongoing investigation into matters of the economy, “remains vigilant and alert” to address any efforts to influence or obstruct the proceedings.
“The statement by the Greens’ leader Mr. Perdikis (if attributed fairly), that the Attorney General’s argument suggests we should be lenient on conflicts of interest relating to family relations because we are a small country, can only be described as a monument of distortion,” Clerides said.
“The same can be said of another statement by the same deputy,” he added, alluding to Perdikis’ “length and depth” line.
“If what he said is his interpretation of what I said in my letter, I am truly sorry for the level and approach taken on nuanced statements by an independent official, and urge more caution,” Clerides countered.