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Our View: Did the audit office have an ulterior motive?

ΠτΔ – Γενικός Ελεγκτής // por – auditor g
File photo, Auditor General Odysseas Michaelides (left) and President Nikos Christodoulides

One newspaper claimed that the audit office’s report about the earnings of President Nikos Christodoulides, while he was serving as acting government spokesman, between 2014 and early 2018, had ‘detonated a crisis of megatons.’

This may have been an exaggeration, but it was based on information that the president was considering reporting Attorney-General Odysseas Michaelides for abuse of power and referring the matter to the supreme court, which has the power to terminate his service. There was also talk that Michaelides could be reported for violating the president’s personal data, by publicising his earnings. Government spokesman Constantinos Letymbiotis dismissed the idea there was a crisis in relations with the audit office but also expressed displeasure about the report.

We doubt Christodoulides would dare report the auditor-general to the supreme court as this would keep alive this embarrassing issue and risk turning Michaelides into a martyr, being persecuted by the government because he refused to turn a blind eye to presidential wrongdoing and insisting that the money he had wrongfully claimed as acting government spokesman had to be returned.

It is not a small amount that must be returned, according to the audit office’s report. In the four years he was acting government spokesman, Christodoulides had been paid €20,804 more than he was entitled to, when on trips abroad (he should have received a civil servant’s per diem rate rather than a minister’s, which is double and amounted to €41,000). On retiring he collected €18,176 in holiday pay – 75 days in total – without following the necessary procedures. There was also the mileage of the service car he had been given as spokesman and had not used exclusively for government business.

Michaelides said that Christodoulides did not have to repay the €157,209 in wages he was not legally entitled to, because the excess payments had been approved by the council of ministers. According to the law, Christodoulides should have carried on being paid his civil service pay grade when he was acting government spokesman and not the salary commanded by the post to which he was seconded as a civil servant, the same applied to the per diem.

What happens, now? Will Michaelides insist the president returns the money he had claimed unlawfully? And what would happen if he refused to do so as he had done earlier in his career, after he had been paid an overseas posting allowance for four months he was based in Cyprus? The foreign ministry asked for the money to be returned but he did not comply, and the illegality was allowed to stand.

According to a lawyer specialising in administrative law, once payments have been made by the state these cannot be claimed back by the state years later, as Michaelides seems to think. Legally, this is not an option, especially as the payments were approved by the appropriate authorities at the time. Perhaps recovery of the overpayments was never the audit office’s objective. If the embarrassment of the president was the objective, it was achieved.

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