All the talk of tackling corruption in the lead up to May’s election has fallen silent
The issue of corruption dominated the political scene during the long parliamentary pre-election period, from the resignations of the then House president Demetris Syllouris, and Akel MP and real estate developer, Christakis Giovanis, to the election day, May 30.
A series of events in the period leading to the elections highlighted the need to reconstruct the rules governing the compilation and filing of “wealth statements” by politically exposed persons (PEPs). The ineffectiveness of the system and its total failure to attain its goal had become readily apparent to the man in the street.
In autumn 2020, as part of efforts to address this system malfunctioning and its consequent ineffectiveness, I took the initiative to identify the principal obstacles which had undermined the system since it was introduced in 2004 but, more importantly, to formulate a new integrated legislative proposal that would remove these obstacles.
By utilising my extensive knowledge and experience in such systems, earned in my capacity as a qualified accountant in public practice for many decades, I drafted a comprehensive proposal that was placed at the disposal of the politicians. In this difficult task, invaluable help and support was received by a distinguished accountant, Nicos G. Syrimis, and from the internationally renowned Nobel Prize economist, Sir Christopher Pissarides. The substance of this work is reflected in the White Paper, which was finalised and published in March 2021. The White Paper, along with other relevant documents, are available at https://pothen-esches-cyprus.com
All the parliamentary parties (save Elam who did not take a position) reacted positively to our proposals. In fact, some of them were enthusiastic about the whole project. Also very positive was the reaction of the auditor-general’s office and the tax department. Furthermore, the proposals were widely publicised, both by the mass media and specialised professional magazines, such as that of the Institute of Certified Public Accountants of Cyprus (ICPAC).
Unfortunately, this effort came to nothing. The promises given by all political parties about the immediate combating of corruption and collusion were forgotten, possibly because the issue has technical complexities that are beyond the comprehension of politicians. Possibly it was because there are matters that those involved in the process do not wish to publicise. And possibly it was because the politically exposed persons are not prepared to put up with the embarrassment that could result from the public exposure of their family wealth. For example, they might be understandably unwilling to publicly disclose the fact that they are on the verge of bankruptcy. Why nothing has happened is not really important. What does matter is that nothing has happened and that corruption continues to plague the country.
Having confirmed the lack of the necessary political commitment to deal with this serious problem, it has occurred to me that an easy way of tackling the problem might be the voluntary implementation of a properly operated system of statements of wealth by one political party, in relation to its key officials. I believe that such a move would separate the wheat from the chaff and could possibly mark the beginning of the long-awaited catharsis. Will one of the political parties venture on such a course? I dare not say.
As explained and documented – in fair detail – in the White Paper, the basic pillars of an effective system of statements of wealth and of the related “pothen esches” (where have the funds come from) are the following:
- An annual cycle and, in particular, the quantification of the wealth of a politically exposed person, his/her spouse and underage children, as at the end of each calendar year and the “bridging” of the declared wealth with the corresponding declaration, as at the end of the immediately preceding year, thus responding to the fundamental question of “where have the funds come from” in the year that is being examined.
- Compilation of the statement of wealth on the basis of the historic cost (acquisition cost) of the individual assets reflected in such a statement. The inclusion in this declaration of the assets beneficially owned under trust arrangements is a must.
- Use of a standardised reporting form, thus facilitating the compilation process, the examination of the returns filed and the overall transparency of the process, by rendering the documents made public readily comprehensible by the public at large.
- Publication, on an ongoing, permanent basis, of the statements of wealth, by uploading them on a dedicated website, exclusively used for this purpose, thus rendering the search for a given declaration as easy as possible.
- Imposition of penalties for the late submission of returns and for the submission of intentionally or negligently false or inaccurate returns.
- Assignment of the management of the system of the statements of wealth of PEPs to a small team of experienced accountants of a good moral standing, who have no conflicting interests in relation to the work they will be undertaking. These “managers” of the system of the statements of wealth of the politically exposed persons should be appointed for a three-year term by the executive arm of the state and their appointment should be ratified by the legislative and the judicial arms of the state.
- Examination of the returns filed by independent audit bodies, such as the auditor-general’s office and the tax department and, in the case where problems are identified, by independent accountants-auditors.
- In my opinion, the fight against corruption should focus on the present and the future and not on the past. On this basis, the first returns will have a chronological point of reference, the beginning and the end of 2020, and will include the “bridging” (reconciliation and justification of the change in the wealth declared) of the two statements, resulting from transactions entered into in the course of the 12-month period.
In order to attain this objective and render the utilisation of the system in the forthcoming presidential elections feasible, it is absolutely necessary to get the process going and to attend to the necessary preliminary work for launching the system NOW!
Christos Panayiotides is a regular columnist for the Cyprus Mail, Sunday Mail and Alithia