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Our View: Are independent state officials unaccountable?

Which independent state official has the right to exercise control over the other? This is the big question that has been raised in our dysfunctional state by the public showdown between the ubiquitous Auditor General Odysseas Michaelides and the defiant Ombudswoman Maria Stylianou Lottidou. For good a measure, a third independent official, Attorney-general (AG) Costas Clerides has also been drawn into the feud because he had issued an opinion in March, leaked to a newspaper last weekend, taking Michaelides’ side.

Stylianou-Lottidou, in an announcement, argued the AG had “by mistake” ignored the law, which listed the individuals the auditor-general could audit and did not include the ombudswoman. Clerides, in his opinion, wrote that “independent of the provisions of any other law, the auditor-general has the authority to ask for information in any form.” Michaelides had publicly censured Stylianou-Lottidou for renewing the rental contract of the ombudsperson’s offices without following the correct procedure and demanded information that she refused to hand over, disputing his authority over her office. This was the reason Michaelides sought the opinion of the AG.

There was another amusing twist, further complicating the story. Stylianou-Lottidou carried out her own investigation into abuse of power by Michaelides for the way he sought information he was not entitled to from her office. She also asked how the ombudswoman could operate if “every person under scrutiny, in order to avoid complying with the ombudswoman’s report, sought and in the end secured an opinion from the attorney-general with different content.” In her announcement, she also said that she was on the same level as the AG, according to a Supreme Court decision of 2009, and the latter was obliged to adopt the ombudswoman’s reports regarding equality and discrimination.

This confusion can probably only be cleared by the Supreme Court, which would also have to engage in its own interpretation of the laws regarding the powers of independent state officials. For instance, could the AG demand the compliance of the ombudswoman, an independent official, when he is ex officio the legal advisor of the auditor-general’s office? The most worrying aspect of this mess is that two independent state officials – not so much the AG – insist that no control should be exercised over them, which implies that they are accountable to nobody.

Are independent state officials mini-dictators, untouchable and unaccountable, with licence to do as they please? Michaelides has repeatedly shown that he subscribes to this view, which Stylianou-Lottidou also seems to share. This just seems wrong in a democratic country with rule of law.

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