Ombudswoman Maria Stylianou-Lottides said Thursday the auditor-general was trying to bully her, as a dispute over jurisdiction between the two independent state officials continued before the House watchdog committee.
The two have been at loggerheads for more than a year over whether Auditor-general Odysseas Michaelides had the authority to audit the office of the ombudswoman.
Stylianou-Lottides told the members of the committee that her institution must be protected from any outside attack and wondered “if we all came here today with clean hands.”
The ombudswoman said he had sent a report to Michaelides in 2018 regarding the interpretation of an administrative audit. In it, she said, she analysed the interpretations and concluded that the auditor-general could not carry out an administrative audit of her outfit.
Stylianou-Lottides said she had also sent a copy of the report to the attorney-general.
Michaelides never responded or commented on the report, instead he wrote a letter to the attorney-general, she said.
Stylianou-Lottides said that in the past two years, auditors had visited her office eight times.
MPs heard that the International Ombudsman Institution stressed the independence of the office, which may “not receive any direction from any public authority which would compromise its independence”.
“We therefore believe that if a dispute arises as to the interpretation of the statutory laws, the underlying international standard and concept that supreme administrative control bodies, like the Commissioner for Administration and Human Rights (Ombudsman), should not be subject to any control which would compromise decisions on cases. Doing otherwise would undermine the independence of any ombudsman institution and hinder the exercise of its core function: to in-dependently control public administration,” the IOI said.
Those principles were also echoed by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, which laid down the principles on the protection and promotion of the institution.
Michaelides told MPs the attorney-general issued a legal opinion, which outlines the ombudswoman’s obligation to provide the information sought by the audit service.
The auditor said Stylianou-Lottides’s predecessor gave his office all the information it wanted, something that stopped when she was appointed.
He also raised the matter of the building the Stylianou-Lottides’s office was housed in, which did not have final approval from the town planning department.
Michaelides said the office remained in a building without final approval despite the explicit opinion that this constituted a criminal offence. He also told MPs that the lease expired in 2017 and has not been renewed.
Efforts to move to a new building because of the owner’s refusal to lower the rent started in 2016 but the competition was subsequently cancelled.
Michaelides also accused Stylianou-Lottides of spending public money to install a lift in a privately-owned building, arguing that the state could not intervene on private property.
There was also the suggestion that she had asked her husband to print her report without budgeting the expense.
Stylianou-Lottides said the lift was installed for use by people with disabilities and the procedure was fully transparent. The project was awarded to the best bidder and now the building was fully accessible to people with disabilities.
She said it had opted for that procedure for a project worth €10,000 because as the organisation protecting the rights of the disabled she had the authority for extra budgetary spending.
Of her report, Stylianou-Lottides said she had no time to print it so she paid out of her pocket – without asking for reimbursement — to print two copies at a copy centre for the president of the republic and the house president.
The ombudswoman added that she had also purchased kitchen utensils and a sofa for her office without recovering the cost.
MPs heard that the search for a new office started by her predecessor came up empty because the bids did not meet the criteria.
After that, she renegotiated the lease and renewed the contract for four years on September 8, securing a reduction in rent from €8.5 per sqm to €7 for the first two years, and €8 for the remaining two.
Stylianou-Lottides added there was an ongoing procedure by the owner to secure final approval.