IN CYPRUS the performance of independent state officials is never properly evaluated. It often comes under the scrutiny of the press and in some cases, the social media commentariat will exercise some criticism, but there are no objective criteria for evaluating the job done.
There is a reason for this, apart from the fact that no public official is ever evaluated – it is a way of safeguarding the independence of the official by depriving the executive of tools to apply pressure if it disagrees with decisions they have taken. But there are also weaknesses in this practice. State officials who are performing their duties inadequately, or consistently show bad judgment cannot be removed from their posts by anyone. The executive will have to wait for them to reach retirement age to be rid of them.
If attorney-general Costas Clerides was evaluated on his performance in the six years he has been in his post he would not have received anywhere near a pass mark. Last week another blunder of his office was exposed by the courts. Two of the defendants in the Focus bribery and corruption case had all charges against them dropped after the full bench of the criminal court unanimously ruled there was an abuse of process by the prosecution. Some have argued that the judgment was based on a technicality, but even this does not reflect well on the AG’s office.
At the end of May, the supreme court rejected the appeal by the state against the acquittal of two Bank of Cyprus executives, once again ruling there had been ‘abuse of process’ by the AG. It found that the charges had the same basis as the charges brought against the two executives in two earlier trials in which they were acquitted. Earlier in the same month, the Limassol criminal court threw out the case brought against four men for the irregular granting of €12 million worth of loans by the Ayia Fyla co-op, because, after two years of hearings, it found there was no prima facie evidence for a trial – another failure of the prosecution.
Meanwhile, millions have been spent by the taxpayer supporting the investigations into the collapse of the economy and the banking sector that would supposedly have put those responsible behind bars. So far only the former CEO of the Bank of Cyprus was given a prison sentence but it was overturned on appeal. To excuse this failure, Clerides’ brother, also a lawyer, publicly questioned the impartiality of the supreme court judges alleging that some of their offspring were employed by the law office that represented the Bank of Cyprus. This led to Clerides’ public feud with the president of the supreme court.
More recently he questioned of the impartiality of half the supreme court judges that would examine the state’s appeal against the administrative court’s decision that the 2012 public sector pay cuts were unconstitutional. It was almost as if he was preparing his excuses. If this appeal is lost it could cost the taxpayer close to a billion euro and it is difficult to feel confident that Clerides, with his poor track record, would win it. In fact, according to several lawyers, the dispute over the pay cuts could have been won at the administrative court if the state had based its case on the law of necessity. It did not, and public finances are now at risk again.
Such consistent failure is a big negative for society, not just economically. It creates the impression among people that there is no punishment for wrongdoers, especially after all the government promises that those responsible for the banking collapse would be punished. And to make matters worse, in shirking his responsibility, the AG has implied his unsuccessful prosecutions could be attributed to the links of supreme court judges with law offices representing the bank, a suggestion designed to diminish public trust and confidence in the judiciary. What trust can people have in the judiciary when the AG publicly questions its members’ integrity and impartiality when things do not go his way?
Clerides may have been a very good supreme court judge, but as an attorney-general, he has been a big disappointment. Fortunately, he is very close to retirement age and will be stepping down soon. We can only express the hope that he is successful in the last big case he is handling – the appeal against the administrative court’s pay-cuts decision – because another failure, which cannot be ruled out, would be disastrous for public finances.