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Our View: Is the audit office in charge of everything?

feature theo auditor general odysseas michaelides
Auditor-general Odysseas Michaelides

Attorney-general Giorgos Savvides, last Wednesday, at the House legal affairs committee presented the bill on Legal Service of the Republic, which will give complete autonomy and independence to the service. He described the proposed law as “a landmark in the history of the legal service,” as the service will have its own budget (not subject to any ministry’s approval) recruit, promote, and move staff without going through the public service commission; it will also have its own pay structure.

Savvides explained to deputies that complete autonomy and independence of the legal service was the recommendation of both the Greco Committee of the Council of Europe and the European Commission. In a report last July, the Commission recommended “the strengthening of the attorney-general’s office and its budget independence, while the Greco compliance report of the same month urged the speeding up of the preparation bill of the bill. Both bodies saw the autonomy of the service as essential for the effective investigation and tackling of high-level corruption.

At the House committee meeting, Savvides also felt obliged to put the record straight regarding the “myths” promoted by other “independent institutions,” which persistently claimed the Greco committee had recommended the separation of the legal service. He was referring to Auditor-general Odysseas Michaelides’ campaign to end the dual role of the attorney-general as legal advisor of the state and public prosecutor. While this is a legitimate point and Savvides told the committee he was not opposed to the idea, he said the priority, at present, was the bill on the service’s autonomy. Creating the two roles would require time and an amendment of the constitution, which is not something that happens on demand.

Michaelides seized the comments of Savvides and responded in a long announcement interpreting the Greco recommendation in a way that suited his campaign, insisting that the separation of roles was an imperative that could not wait. It is astonishing how often the auditor-general poses as a legal and constitutional expert, issuing diktats on how the state must operate. Apart from the fact that he has no legal training – he is an engineer and has a degree in economics – it is not in the auditor-general’s duties and responsibilities to offer the state legal advice and make recommendations on constitutional reform.

Ironically, if anyone criticizes the audit office or questions its actions, Michaelides immediately announces that he will report them to the International Organisation of Supreme Audit Institutions (Intosai) because they are undermining the office’s independence. He, on the other hand, feels perfectly entitled to undermine the independence of the attorney-general’s office and dictate how it should be organised. From where does this authority emerge – because it is not from the constitution. In fact, Michaelides constantly oversteps the bounds of his constitutional authority, meddling in everything and issuing missives to the executive about how it should do things. In the case of the dual role of attorney-general, he never brought it up when his friend Costas Clerides was in the post, suggesting that his constitutional advice is fashioned, not by knowledge of the law, but by his personal sentiments; he has repeatedly fallen out with Savvides for not obeying his orders.

Michaelides has uncovered some cases of corruption, over the years, winning the trust of the public, but he has cynically abused this trust, seeing it as licence to build his personal power, to meddle in all affairs of state and act as some type of infallible, government overlord. His responsibility is to audit the state accounts and government spending. He has no authority to tell the executive what projects it should undertake, how the state should be structured and who is eligible to be hired as government advisor.

The problem is that the politicians have allowed this systematic abuse of his power because they are afraid to stand up to someone so popular. He has become untouchable, and he knows it. This was why President Nikos Christodoulides, always careful not to alienate public opinion, quite embarrassingly, fell in line when some of his appointments were criticised publicly by Michaelides, who threatened to report the government to the anti-corruption authority if it did not revoke the appointment of a 19-year-old, wrongly claiming it was an illegal act. Interestingly, he made no fuss when his sister got a job at the interior ministry through the back door, on a top pay scale.

Instead of telling him that appointment of government advisors was the exclusive responsibility of the executive and that the auditor-general had no legal right to interfere, Christodoulides invited Michaelides to the presidential palace and agreed to draft a law setting strict criteria for these appointments. The head of state had been publicly reprimanded by the auditor-general and gave him assurances that he would put criteria in place for appointments as the latter had demanded. It is astonishing that Christodoulides was willing to subject himself to such a humiliation, in order to keep Michaelides happy. He was encouraging him to carry on behaving as if he were the highest authority in the land.

The separation of the powers of the attorney-general might be a good idea, but so would a law clearly defining the powers of the auditor-general, who needs to understand that constitutional reform is not in his remit.

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