By Bejay Browne and Evie Andreou
Paphos Mayor Phedonas Phedonos on Monday lashed out at the head of the antiquities department for reporting him to the Attorney-general’s office over allegations he made that her staff were stealing and selling artefacts from the basements of museums.
The content and tone of the letter sent by antiquities director Marina Solomidou-Ieronymidou to the AG, was “unprecedented, inaccurate and unfortunate,” Phedonos said in a three-page letter of his own addressed to the antiquities chief on Monday night.
Solomidou-Ieronymidou had challenged the mayor’s earlier comments about theft and his reluctance to withdraw them in her letter said to have been approved by Communications and Works Minister, Marios Demetriades under whose ministry her department operates.
The antiquities head strongly denied the allegations against her staff and demanded that Phedonos present evidence to support his claims.
A spokesman for Paphos municipality confirmed that she had also written a letter to the mayor, pressing him to retract his comments.
“She said in a letter to the mayor that what he said isn’t true, and to correct what he had said. I don’t know if there is truth in what the mayor said or not, perhaps he has some inside information. I really don’t know.”
Her letter said that the comments, made publicly, denigrated the reputation, dignity and moral integrity of employees at the department of antiquities and “destroy the validity of my department”.
She added that the mayor should submit any information to the attorney-general and that if no information was forthcoming she would consider the mayor’s comments as defamation, “and will act accordingly.”
The spokesman said: “The background to this started when a number of tombs were recently uncovered close to the town hall during works to upgrade the centre of Paphos and resulted in the delay in construction. Phedonos wants the revamp to go quickly and doesn’t want to lose time to complete the works.”
He asked the antiquities department if the municipality could carry on and finish the works, so that Paphos wouldn’t have to pay compensation to the contractors and work would be on track, he said.
Phedonos took over the helm last year from disgraced former mayor, Savvas Vergas, who is currently in prison for corruption. He has quickly earned a reputation as an outspoken mayor and he pulled no punches in his letter response to Solomidou-Ieronymidou. He also said her “unnecessary references” to Vergas in her letter “revealed other intentions”.
As far as the facts go, Phedonos said that twice last month he suggested showcasing the antiquities found in the square outside the town hall, by placing them if possible in glass cases where they were found.
“I also suggested temporarily closing the street at the point where the antiquities were found,” he said, adding that the contractor however warned of big delays in the construction works as the installation of EAC cables would be hindered.
“I suggested circumventing the excavation area, and that the sewerage and electricity cables follow another route.”
But while everyone agreed to this, he said, an antiquities department official threatened that if this happened, she would call the police and have him arrested, as it would endanger the archaeologists excavating the site.
“Despite that I didn’t care for her threat,” Phedonos said, he said he suggested the excavations to stop for a few hours to lay the cables but the same official threatened him with arrest a second time. Phedonos said that he called Solomidou-Ieronymidou and she herself agreed to his proposal.
He added that when he later repeated his suggestion of showcasing the archaeological finds, the antiquities head rejected the idea on security grounds. The mayor said he offered to cover all of the costs of such a project because it would be more beneficial than storing the antiquities in the basement of the museum.
“I mentioned that the antiquities are kept without any modern recording system, without going through scanning and electronic recording and I had been informed that some workers and/or others remove and/or replace antiquities from the basement and sell them,” he said.
He also urged Solomidou-Ieronymidou to do an inventory of the thousands of archaeological findings in the basement of the Paphos Museum to find out how many are there, and how many are missing, “if of course all documents recording the antiquities are located”.
“I hope the results of your research does not force yourselves to refer you to the police and the attorney-general,” Phedonos said.
He also told the antiquities head she ought to be “accurate and fair” and avoid creating false impressions. He called on her to apologise. “You tried to insult and degrade me… It is you who tried to discredit me and not vice versa”.
“I call on the antiquities department to cooperate with the municipality of Paphos and act promptly so that the course of the construction works is not hindered,” he added.
The aim is the best interests of the town, Phedonos said. He said he would bring the issue before the Public Service Commission to scrutinise the actions of the antiquities department.
“Do not forget that you are part of the civil service and you have certain obligations and your behaviour and actions are not beyond control,” he concluded.