Auditor-general Odysseas Michaelides will send a letter to Finance Minister Makis Keravnos stating that “any inclusion of an undocumented amount [of money] in a new agreement with [gaming company] Opap constitutes illegal state aid.”
The letter is set to be sent while discussions between Opap and the government with regard to the gaming licence are in progress. Treasury officials told the parliamentary audit committee on Thursday that the discussions were “at an advanced stage.”
In response, committee members criticised the delay in concluding the agreement, which they said has caused the state to lose revenue, the assumption being that the state will collect more money through a new licensing agreement.
The committee’s chairman, Diko deputy Zacharias Koulias, said “the issue of Opap must be clarified once and for all and we will allow a reasonable amount of time – one and a half months – to see what the finance ministry does.”
“We must prevent the state from signing a one-sided agreement,” he added.
Michaelides said “we have known since 2015 that the agreement is unfair, we spent three years making another law. It’s been five years and they haven’t implemented it.”
Defending the delay in implementing the legislation, Kyriakos Kakouris, the head of the finance ministry’s directorate of strategy and coordination, said the relevant procedures began in 2018, “immediately after the legislation was passed [in parliament].”
He said, “the delay in the process was fully justified” as the ministry assigned an external consultant to carry out a due diligence review and that the discussions held were “technical and detailed.”
The head of the finance ministry’s central government financial administration directorate, Lucy Herodotou Mouskou, said it “took a year to carry out the due diligence audit,” and after this the National Betting Authority negotiated with Opap the codes of the different games of chance.
Meanwhile, Michaelides said that if an open tender were held on the licensing of betting shops, the state would have increased its revenue significantly.
“In the scenarios we saw, if the charge was five per cent, we would have collected together with tax about €38 million, whereas today we collect about €15 million,” he said.
He also pointed out that Opap Cyprus is a subsidiary of Opap Greece and sends about 10 per cent of its revenue – around €25 million – to its parent company. “There is not the slightest documentation as to why these amounts should be given to Opap Greece,” Michaelides declared.
At the meeting there was also a confrontation between Zacharias Koulias and Disy deputy Savia Orphanidou, after she suggested that Opap should be invited to speak to the committee. Koulias asked her “who do you represent?”
Orphanidou demanded Koulias to retract what he said and added “I represent Disy not Opap. Retract everything you said because you are damaging my good name.”
Koulias’ response was, “I dutifully support the auditor-general.”
Later in the meeting Orphanidou said the meeting constituted an “unbalanced debate” as Auditor-General Michailides was allowed to speak for half an hour while the finance ministry was not afforded the equivalent time.
She added: “I want to report that the committee’s chair has bullied me in a very unethical way, saying I represent certain interests. I consider it tragic and unacceptable, and these are the reasons why people are disgusted with politics.”
Koulias once again responded, telling her to “go outside and say it.”
He added that “the committee’s job is to monitor the issues and the trail of money, and the auditor-general is its most important partner. It doesn’t need lawyers or accusers, even though it has a fair number of accusers.”