A string of irregularities at the agriculture ministry – including outright unlawful commercial developments within the Natura 2000 protected area, suspect payments of state grants, and even one case where the minister of agriculture himself apparently interceded in the granting of a permit for a solar park – were outlined on Tuesday in an audit office report.

The dossier additionally found major shortcomings in invoicing and bookkeeping practices across departments of the ministry.

The auditor-general highlighted the operation of unlicensed farms inside the Natura 2000 area, which among others “raises questions about the sanitary monitoring of the unit and also the method of disposal of large quantities of milk or meat produced there, with all the attendant risks to public health.”

According to the report, the farms in question continue to operate years after authorities noted these irregularities. The attorney-general meanwhile has ordered legal measures be taken against the owner and operator of one farm specifically. In relation to this, he has also instructed ministry officials to investigate the possibility of the commission of disciplinary infractions on the part of departments within the ministry.

Elsewhere the dossier notes the improper or inadequate disposal of carcasses of animals found to have been infected with brucellosis in certain farms. The bidding competition to dispose of carcasses and skins was found wanting, while a specific culling carried out on April 22 this year “may have been unlawful, as it is not covered by signed inspection certificates for culling.”

The ministry has conducted an administrative probe into this, finding that functionaries at the Veterinary Services may have committed disciplinary offences. The cabinet has ordered a disciplinary investigation against the functionaries and the head of the Veterinary Services, who was suspended for a period of three months.

Regarding the Water Development Department, which also comes under the agriculture ministry, the report said the department received delivery of off-specification desalinated water. In addition, a company operating a desalination plant was granted monetary compensation for a period of time during which the facility did not operate, in breach of regulations.

The Audit Office also examined a complaint filed by a member of the public regarding the construction of a solar park in the community of Kato Koutrafas (Nicosia district). According to the report, “it appears, at first glance, that there occurred an intervention by the Minister of Agriculture for the granting of a planning permit to a specific company.”

On another issue, the report goes on to “express reservations about the mechanisms implemented by the ministry and the involved departments in ensuring that grants are not provided to problematic corporations, as part of the Rural Development Programmes, in cases where this was not permissible under EU law.

“As a result, there may have been funds which were wrongfully paid.”