The education ministry unlawfully awarded a tender to a travel agent to organise a pupil trip to Turkey, the state audit service said on Friday, amid a continuing public debate over the decision to use an airline that also used an airport in the Turkish occupied north of the island.
The audit service also revisited past claims that the travel agent used, which belonged to the husband of an education ministry official, was enjoying preferential treatment.
In a letter to the ministry, the service said the company’s bid should have been rejected because it violated a vital condition regarding the time of arrival in Turkey.
The pupils arrived at their destination at around midnight instead of before 10pm.
A different bid had received a higher score, the service said, and consequently “the tender was illegally awarded.”
The issue emerged after the foreign ministry inquired about the education ministry’s decision to fly Cypriot pupils to Trabzon for the World School Games — held between July 11 and 18 — with Pegasus, a privately-owned Turkish airline that also flies to and from the illegal airport.
The audit service said education ministry actions that suggested preferential treatment of the travel agent in question had been noted in the recent past.
The service brushed aside the education minister’s suggestion that the reputation of the official in question was being tainted. The service’s references no longer concern the official in question but the ministry itself, the letter said, “whose actions have violated the law regarding public contracts.”
As regards the use of Pegasus, the audit service referred to the foreign ministry website, which states that use of the illegal airport in occupied Tymbou constituted a violation of international law, the UN Security Council resolutions, and international and European aviation laws.
Education Minister Costas Kadis said only two airlines flew to Trabzon, Pegasus and Turkish Airlines, and both used the Tymbou airport.
Education ministry permanent secretary Egli Pantelaki backed Kadis’ argument and claimed that the foreign ministry had been aware of the arrangements made, but expressed no reservations.
“We received three tenders for this trip – two from Turkish Airlines, and the third from Pegasus,” she said.
On the travel agent matter, the audit service said it had been used like no other company in 2012 and 2013.
Specifically, in 2012, the education ministry bought 94 tickets from the agent in question, out of a total of 240. In 2013, it purchased 53 from a total of 162.
Out of the 53 tickets in 2013, 62 per cent concerned tickets for trips by the minister, the permanent secretary, and officials from the department headed by the wife of the travel agent.
“From the above, it is obvious that there was preferential treatment of the particular travel agent since most of the tickets were purchased from there without open and transparent procedures,” the audit service said.
The attorney-general, who looked into the case, had concluded that no disciplinary charges could be substantiated against the official in question.