Mistakes were made in the handling of the secondment by the education ministry of Despo Sergiou, a teacher – and elected member of ruling Disy’s political bureau – to Cyprus’ Permanent Representation of the European Union (PREE), but under no circumstances was there any intention to favour her over other candidates, minister Costas Kadis told the House watchdog committee on Tuesday.
Kadis found himself under fire after a report by auditor-general Odysseas Michaelides was made public, saying that, after the minister was denied the opening of a second post in Brussels for the education ministry – which only has one spot allocated – he tried to circumvent the system by seconding Sergiou to his office and dispatching her to Brussels from there.
Making matters worse, Sergiou, whose husband is also seconded to the PREE by the Central Bank of Cyprus, appears to have worked from home while there, which is prohibited for civil servants by law.
But even after Michaelides pointed out the wrongful handling of the matter in a letter to Kadis in September 2015, and recommended that the secondment to Brussels for the ministry’s only post – which had meanwhile been vacated – be filled through a public invitation of interest, a five-person selection committee once again chose Sergiou, whose illegal three-month stay in Brussels, from November 2015 to February 2016, helped nudge her ahead of nine other candidates on experience.
And this despite the fact that two of the candidates boasted PhDs, while Sergiou has a Masters’ degree in education.
“The way we handled the issue had weaknesses, and when these were identified we followed the auditor-general’s recommendations in full,” Kadis told lawmakers.
“But there were particularities in this case. There are three main reasons why a second spot in the PREE for the education ministry is an absolute necessity: there are extremely important directives being discussed and prepared in Brussels as we speak, which are of great interest to our country; there are several meetings our sole secondment needs to attend, many of which overlap – which, automatically, translates to an empty chair, which we can’t afford; lastly, there are several competitive funding programmes on offer by the EU, and if a second secondment can help us win even a single one, then it will have paid for its cost many times over.”
Meanwhile, he added, the education ministry’s request to the foreign ministry – responsible for approving secondments – was never answered, though PREE director Kornelios Korneliou did tell the foreign ministry in a letter that there was no need for a second spot for the education ministry.
“I have yet to receive a response to our request for a second spot,” Kadis said.
“I found out about Korneliou’s letter in September 2015, seven months after our request, when the auditor-general attached it to one of his letters.”
And anyway, the minister added, the vast majority of PREE secondments are done by ministerial decree, not public invitations of interest.
The education ministry’s permanent secretary Egli Pantelakis, who chaired the selection committee that picked Sergiou, said a finance-ministry directive mandates that the “most economic” of candidates is selected among “equally-graded candidates”.
“We are also encouraged to take into account whether a candidate’s spouse is already seconded – and we often have,” Pantelakis said.
This was confirmed by foreign ministry official Marina Constantinou, who cited an opinion published by the Ombudswoman’s office.
Pantelakis also claimed that, in assessing the 10 candidates for the Brussels secondment, the selection committee was “amazed” by Sergiou’s oral interview, and voted for her unanimously over better-credentialled candidates.
Sergiou has been asked, and agreed, to pay back the “general allowance” – €2,800 per month, according to Michaelides – she received, in addition to her monthly salary, for the three months she was illegally seconded to Brussels and worked from home.
Despite the explanations given, main opposition Akel launched an all-out attack against Kadis, insisting that he intentionally favoured Sergiou.
“The education minister is ‘raping’ our intelligence,” deputy Irene Charalambidou told reporters before the session was even over.
“The auditor-general’s report proves that he was involved in graft, because Sergiou is a member of Disy’s political bureau.”
In his own remarks after the session, Kadis said the first thing Charalambidou should have had the decency to do was not leave the session an hour and a half early in order to talk to the press, and sit and listen to the answers and views given by the ministry.
“I understand she left the room in the middle of the session to say what she said,” Kadis noted.