By Angelos Anastasiou
TWO government-sponsored bills that will hold ministers and independent public officials accountable for purposeful actions or omissions that harm the public interest, but technically don’t violate any laws or the Constitution, were presented to the House Legal Affairs committee by Justice minister Ionas Nicolaou on Wednesday.
Nicolaou told deputies that a separate bill is being prepared to flesh out the President’s accountability under such circumstances.
The bills aim to fill legislative gaps for purposeful omissions or actions that are not included in constitutional articles or other existing legislation.
According to existing legislation, for independent public officials found guilty of a crime and who are subject to incarceration, the maximum statutory sentence is six months in prison or a fine of up to €40,000.
The first government bill brought to the House stipulates that those in scope are not relieved of existing penalties, even if they are found to have acted on instructions from the president or a senior independent official.
In scope is the governor of the Central Bank of Cyprus, the Auditor-general, and their respective deputies.
The second bill will implement the same principles for government ministers, the government spokesman, and the Undersecretary to the president.
But the bill on independent officials was met with resistance by both Central Bank governor Chrystalla Georghadji and Auditor-general Odysseas Michaelides.
Georghadji objected to the fact that the European Central Bank was not consulted with prior to preparing the bill, as explicitly mandated by the acquis communautaire, and argued that passing it will result in Cyprus being dragged to the European Court.
In support of her argument, she handed deputies the ECB’s consultation guide to national authorities.
This view was rejected by Nicolaou, who told reporters after the session that according to the Legal Service this issue does not require consultations with the ECB as it does not incur additional penalties or duties.
Both Michaelides and Deputy Auditor-general Kyriacos Kyriacou said such legislation is redundant.
Michaelides argued that it contravenes the constitutional principle of equality before the law, as a civil servant would not be prosecuted for dereliction of duty, while the Auditor-general could be faced with jail time.
As an example, he gave a hypothetical scenario in which he is legally obligated to submit his annual reports on semi-state organisations by June 15, but because his service is not in a position to prepare them timely he would be considered purposefully in breach of his duties.
Deputy Kyriacou pointed out that he is obliged to follow his superior’s instructions, and therefore could not be held liable for complying with them.
A Legal Service official countered these objections, arguing that an independent public official cannot be compared with a civil servant.
Speaking after the session, Nicolaou asked public officials not to miss the forest for the trees.
He pointed out that trust had to be restored in government institutions, and explained that the Attorney-general and his deputy are not in scope, as their legal opinion was that the constitution does not subject them to any scrutiny, even by the judiciary.
But, he added, if parliament deems it necessary, it is free to include both in the list of independent officials in scope.