Illegalities registered by the SAI remain invisible to the Prosecution

Centre for Civic Education (CCE) points out that certain conclusions of the Audit Report on Annual Financial Statement of the State Election Commission (SEC), conducted by the State Audit Institution (SAI), confirm numerous irregularities in the operations of the SEC. Audit of Financial operations of the SEC for 2020 was one of the CCE’s proposals directed to the Senate of the SAI, which itself decided to include operations of that body in the plan of regular annual audits.

The report on the SEC confirms improper management of tax-payers money in this institution, but also significant violations of positive regulations by that body. Therefore, the SAI issued a positive opinion in relation to the Annual financial plan of the SEC for the last year, but also conditional opinion on the compliance of the operations of this institution with the regulations. SAI demands that SEC adopt an action plan for the implementation of the recommendations within 30 days, as well as to inform SAI about implemented recommendations within six months.

The fact that, despite the identical argumentation submitted by the CCE to the Special State Prosecutor’s Office (SSPO) through criminal charges, SSPO brought the decision of rejection of at least two of three charges, assessing that they do not contain elements of a criminal offense that would be prosecuted ex officio, is worrying.

One of the latest cases of rejecting the criminal charge concerned the lease of business premises in Hilton hotel for the elections last year, when as much as 70,000 EUR were allocated from the budget for only two months of lease of the premises in this hotel. The CCE even then warned the public that this procedure was conducted ignoring the provisions of the Law on Public Procurement that obliged implementation of the tender procedure for the lease of hotel capacities because apart from the lease of the premises, additional services were included. At that time, the CCE drew attention to the fact that the lease agreement concluded with this hotel does not correspond to the nature of this business, nor was it certified in accordance with the Law on Obligations, which lead to its invalidity. Consequently, the Government of Montenegro, which decided to allocate funds from the budget for this purpose based on such an agreement, was also misled.

SAI identifies the same deficiencies and notes that insight into the issued invoices proved that apart from the lease of the hall, subject of procurement were also services of food and drinks, that are not exempted from the application of the Law on public procurement. In addition, having in mind that the prices on a daily basis are different, the opinion is that it is not just about the lease but also about additional services, that could not be classified as exemptions from the application of the law, but that an adequate public procurement procedure must have been conducted and, accordingly, the best bid chosen.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case of avoiding the public procurement procedure by the SEC. For example, the SEC treated the procurement of tablecloths, flags, services of printing the handbook for training of polling stations and procurements of other material as procurement of election material for which a tender procedure is not mandatory.

Apart from the inconsistency of operations with the Law on public procurements, SAI assessed that there are certain inconsistencies of operations of the SEC with the Law on Wages of Public Sector Employees, the Law on Civil Servants and State Employees, the Law on the election of councillors and representatives, the Labour Law, the Decree on reimbursement of expenses of the employees in the public sector, as well as the Law on Management and Internal Controls in Public Sector.

The SAI assesses that the SEC does not keep records of the presence of employees, thus no evidence of overtime work is provided, but also that SEC does not have internal procedure for calculation and payment of wages. The SAI also notes that contracts on additional work, for 22.100 euros, which the SEC concluded with its employees, do not provide data on working hours, nor do they precisely define the jobs to be done, nor the manner of their performance. It is not stated who is in charge of control / supervision over the performance of contracted works nor the obligation to report on completed works.

Decision on determining remuneration for work in the State Election Commission determines remuneration on several basis, such as remuneration for attending Commission sessions, monthly fees for work in the Commission and fees for work in the SEC from the day of announcing the elections until the day of determining the final election results, which SAI finds controversial, and which the CCE has problematized earlier. CCE addressed the SEC, demanding repeal of the decision, and after being ignored by the SEC, the initiative was directed to budget inspector of the Ministry of Finance, who was not even appointed during the mandate of the former government.

The SEC that has two vehicles did not bring appropriate act which regulate the manner of their use, and despite the fact that the SEC already had a systematized position of independent clerk-driver, the described tasks were performed by a person engaged under service contract, which is contrary to Law. There is no internal rulebook in the SEC that would regulate the right to use representation funds, for which larger amounts were allocated earlier, and the limits of mobile phone costs for users have not been determined, as well as the conditions under which the employee is awarded tuition payment.

Furthermore, the SAI states that the SEC improperly kept records about entrusted funds to municipal election commissions during 2020, although it was obliged to do so. The SEC did not determine the manner, nor did it control the usage of resources paid to municipal election commissions, and municipal election commissions did not submit to the SEC requests for the allocation of funds containing a specification of total costs.

When it comes to the engagement of 10 officials of the Parliament of Montenegro in accordance with the Agreement on Professional and Technical Cooperation, performing the tasks of processing signatures of support and other related tasks, the SAI also finds irregularities. Namely, SAI notes that the Agreement does not determine the right to compensation for the provision of professional and technical cooperation. It points out that amounts of fees for these jobs ranged from 500 to 5,000 euros, for jobs that lasted 17 and 24 days, but also that the fees in some cases were divers for the same duration of the contract and the same job description.

On this issue, CCE last year initiated supervision of the Agency for Personal Data Protection and Free Access to Information (AZLP) due to suspicion of illegal processing of citizens’ personal data, which was determined by the ALZP’s decision, while the procedure according to the submitted criminal charge to the Special State Prosecutor is still in progress.

The CCE expresses hope that this will also be instructive to the Parliament of Montenegro when electing a new president of the SEC. The new president must be professional, ready to be dedicated to these issues without party influence, as well to positioning SEC as the institution which will not be known for affairs and controversial, politically coloured decisions, but for professionalism and integrity that all actors value.

Damir Suljević, Programme associate