By Angelos Anastasiou
IMAGINE an independent public official showing up to work every morning in spurs, a gun holstered to his waistline, a poncho and a Stetson hat (and maybe a three-day stubble). You might be picturing Clint Eastwood or John Wayne or any of the other archetypal Western fictional larger-than-life cowboys, but you needn’t be. Save for the attire, Auditor General Odysseas Michaelides basically serves as your run-of-the-mill new sheriff in some corruption-riddled little town, fighting the good fight against the forces of evil lurking in the shadows.
Michaelides was thrust into prominence in April 2014, when he left the communications ministry’s in-house audit department to become head honcho – auditor general of the republic. Mere days later, he had taken the department – and the country – by storm, rolling up his sleeves, spotting and exposing irregularities and suspect practices in every corner of government – in itself, a beast of an organisation that bristles with inertia.
The fact that Chrystalla Georghadji – his predecessor – was a particularly tough act to follow makes Michaelides’ perceived success all the more impressive. In eight short months, he has managed to take on the state telecoms company, the Cyprus Tourism Organisation, the Cyprus Cultural Foundation, the Paphos Sewage Board, state doctors, former presidents and ministers, and municipal and local councils (to name but a few). He has become a household name, many referring to him by his first name, and the great white hope of all who have asked not what their country can do for them, but what they can do for their country, and come up short.
A civil engineer PhD, the auditor general thinks sunlight is the best disinfectant. In contrast to most public officials, he believes it is his duty not only to spot wrongdoing, but to bring everything to light. Most of his frequent letters to officials and departments under scrutiny are copied to the House, from where they routinely find their way to the press within minutes.
“Transparency is corruption’s greatest enemy,” he told the Sunday Mail in an interview earlier this year.
And the reverse is true, too. Sensing a threat to its survival, corruption and its agents will launch an assault on transparency. But strangely, this man has not been approached to do what surely qualifies as a national sport in Cyprus – look the other way.
“Never, and I want to stress this,” he protested. “Not because we live in a society of angels – far from it – but because Cyprus is a small place and everyone knows everyone.”
Michaelides’ driving force seems to be a heightened sense of civic duty, an incessant moral compass that will always point towards integrity. It’s no surprise, then, that he was politically active – nor that he left the party in which he was a member out of a deep sense of responsibility.
“I was a party member until my appointment,” he recounted. “Immediately afterwards, I informed my party that my conscience does not allow me to be a member anymore.”
Though still deeply politicised, his new post led him to self-censorship – a conscious choice to keep his opinions private.
All of the above notwithstanding, the tale of a man’s quest to single-handedly purge Cyprus of corruption is a myth.
Even the proverbial lone sheriffs in the spaghetti westerns had deputies, and he has been likened to Antonio Di Pietro (of “operation Clean Hands” fame) on at least one occasion.
But Michaelides hastens to dispel the false public perception, saying he is just the face of the effort.
“All the work that comes out of the Audit Service is the result of collaborative efforts,” he said. “It would be wrong to give the impression that the auditor general does all the work himself.”
But for all the high-profile enemies he must have made in his short time in office, none have even attempted to discredit him thus far. There has been no talk of ulterior motives, or politically driven witch hunts. Perhaps it is the ample political cover afforded him by President Nicos Anastasiades on more than one occasion, or perhaps it has more to do with the unmatched conviction he constantly projects that he is on the side of right, or his squeaky-clean profile that leaves no room for counter-attacks – which may have approached the ridiculous in the case of his seeking the attorney general’s advice on whether he should exempt himself from auditing public officials who happen to be related to him.
Or maybe, this is just one of those right-place-at-the-right-time happy accidents that make history. Michaelides took office just as Cypriots found themselves standing in the ruins of a corrupt system that had maintained a facade of efficiency for decades, and they wanted fingers to be pointed. Enter a fearless untouchable with a blank cheque in his marching orders.
Whatever the case, it seems this 46-year-old engineer has managed, time and again, to beat a system that has proven its ability to hide its dirt meticulously.