Former President George Vassiliou is right to question why he was never asked to return the €48,000 he owes to the state from 17 years ago, Foreign Minister Ioannis Kassoulides said on Thursday.
Speaking to the Cyprus News Agency, Kassoulides said the matter had to be treated with respect as it concerns a former president, his health issues and the state’s legal duties towards him.
The issue created a media storm after the audit service’s 2016 foreign ministry report outlined that a former president received €48,087 outside his term of office in advance for a trip to London in 2000 without ever returning it.
After an erroneous publication in a newspaper naming Demetris Christofias, Auditor-General Odysseas Michaelides clarified that it was Vassiliou, who was in office from 1988 to 1993.
It later emerged the expenses were paid while Vassiliou had brain surgery in London, and covered accommodation at the Langham Hilton Hotel, Bloomsbury Park Hotel and Le Meridien Grosvenor House in London, for some days in May and June for Vassiliou, his wife, their two daughters and their husbands, as well as two other people.
The matter had been outlined in the audit service’s reports since 2011, but Vassiliou said that he was never informed of the outstanding debt or asked to repay it.
Kassoulides too, earlier this week said he had found out about the issue through media reports and the issue had never been brought to his attention.
The former president has a point, Kassoulides said ‘which I cannot blame him for, when he asks why he was never approached all these years for the money’, he told CNA on Thursday.
Kassoulides said that when his term began the outstanding debts of the ministry amounted to €700,000, and that they have now dropped to €300,000.
The ministry has also contacted the high commission in London and the health ministry for evidence concerning the outstanding debts, Kassoulides added.
Efforts to deal with the matter will continue, however the accountant who had sole responsibility for the matter was delegated to a different post and has not been replaced, causing a delay, Kassoulides said.
A source from the audit service told the Cyprus Mail that former President Glafcos Clerides had told Vassiliou in 2000, when he needed his surgery, that he could go to London and all his expenses would be covered.
In England, Vassiliou contacted the high commission asking them to settle the accommodation expenses.
“The high commission knew it wasn’t just for Vassiliou, they made the reservations and had the list of names,” the source said.
Nonetheless, they believed they were temporarily helping out, the source added, and the amount has since been in the accounting books.
The source clarified that the audit service was not raising issue with the medical expenses that were paid for the former president, but the fact that accommodation, laundry, tips and phone call expenses incurred for eight people were being covered by the state – something which is not permitted.
The state only covers medical expenses -if approved- and in isolated cases perhaps a portion of accommodation costs if, for example, a parent travels with a child needing surgery abroad.
“Even then, it’s evaluated based on income criteria on a case-by-case basis and it’s not any hotel the person wants.”
Since the report was made public, the audit service stressed it was the duty of the foreign ministry to ask for the sum of money back.
Vassiliou earlier this week said he had no issue with paying back the €48,000 if the foreign ministry publicly asks for it and it is made clear that the government will not cover the expenses incurred 17 years ago.
He questioned the timing of the publicity ‘a month before the (presidential) elections’ suggesting it may have been linked to his backing of presidential candidate Stavros Malas, who has Akel’s support.
Michaelides countered that such accusations were unacceptable as the matter had been included in reports since 2011.