Prime Minister’s office staff splurge on New Zealand jaunt at EU expense

  • 2011-08-17
  • By Linas Jegelevicius

Deividas Matulionis is under scrutiny after commissioning the New Zealand trip.

KLAIPEDA - The highly unpopular incumbent, Lithuania’s conservative Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius, will in the future undoubtedly be remembered for his austerity measures. Chiming into the savings mode he likes to show off on every occasion, every summer while on vacation Kubilius tends to ride his bike with an entourage consisting of his devoted comrades from the government and, more specifically, from the Motherland Union–Christian Democrat Party (MU-CDP). This August has been no exception as Kubilius went on a lengthy bicycle tour and then did a bit of kayaking in the countryside.
However, while he was pedaling along, his subordinates were hip-hopping across the globe all the way to New Zealand, spending  over 11,000 euros of EU and state budget money.

The daily Lietuvos Rytas revealed the prime minister’s office’s first vice-chancellor, Giedrius Kazakevicius, along with his charming female companion, Egle Rimkute, head of Planning and Monitoring Division of the Strategic Governing Department in the Kubilius-led government, spent nearly a week in the country of Kiwis, both spending over 40,000 litas (11,500 euros).
The bulk of the money was spent to cover air travel expenses, as well as accommodation at the luxurious “James Cook Hotel.”
The government staffers, the daily revealed, globe-trotted to New Zealand “to learn the practices of New Zealand government institutions.”

The scandalous part is that the officials’ trip was partly financed by the European Union, or, to be exact, the European Social Fund Agency (ESFA), which is financed both by the EU and the Lithuanian government.
The EU agency was established in Lithuania in August 2002 by the Ministry of Social Security and Labor of Lithuania and the Ministry of Education and Science of Lithuania. On its Web site, the ESFA reveals its objectives: “While implementing its mission, i.e. administering the projects of the programs delegated to it, the agency aims to ensure appropriate use of the funds provided by the European Union and the Republic of Lithuania, efficient project management – project preparation, selection, supervision and control of project implementation.”

Obviously, in the case of Kazakevicius and Rimkute, “proper use” of EU funds is out of the question; therefore, upon receiving the bill for the trip, the agency refused to pay. However, most likely the officials are not to blame for squandering the EU money, as the decision regarding their trip was made by the government chancellor, Deividas Matulionis, who until now was seen as one of the staunchest supporters of Kubilius and his austerity measures. Certainly not any more, as his image has cracked with the unfolding scandal.

It was Matulionis who came up with the idea to send several high-ranking government officials to New Zealand, “to get a scoop on international administration practice aimed at result-oriented governance,” financing their trip from a special EU-Lithuanian government program, “Improvement of governance oriented to results.”
In order to make the trip possible, in the beginning of July, Matulionis, the highest-ranking appointed official on the Kubilius team, decided to change signed financing agreements with the ESFA, telling the agency that “it is necessary to additionally raise the qualifications of the project participants and ensure its better quality results.”

“On behalf of the government, we initiate an additional visit for two prime minister office civil servants to the country of good practice - New Zealand - which is considered to be one of the best examples in the world of a country with great optimization of state functions and productive public sector administration,” the chancellor said in appealing to the ESFA.
A 42,900 litas bill for the trip of the two staffers, chosen by their superior, Matulionis, followed the request and the departure. The large bill is not surprising, as New Zealand is one the most expensive tourist countries in the world. Air fares alone come close to 20,000 litas for a round-trip flight.

Among other things, the chancellor requested the ESFA assign nearly 17,000 litas for the officials’ local transportation expenses in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital. Later, the request caught ESFA officials scratching their heads: “What kind of local transportation is so expensive?”

The travel expenses also included hotel accommodations for six days at 5,200 litas for two persons.
Speculation is that Kazakevicius and Rimkute not only learnt the New Zealandean secrets of “productive public sector governance,” but also cheered themselves along while traveling through the exotic country.
Matulionis, caught in the crossfire, excuses himself, saying that the travel budget was calculated according to the estimations of travel agency West Express, which usually arranges travel for government officials. Because of agreements with the travel agency, the government has been entangled in lengthy quarrels with the Public Procurement Service, which asserts that the agreement is “void” and, therefore, must be terminated. It has not been done yet.

Having received the whopping travel bill at the beginning of August, the ESFA bristled, announcing it sees a squandering of money in the expenses. The agency pointed out that the prime minister’s office has not provided it with all the documents showing the expenses.

In addition, the Office, prior to submitting the bill to the agency, had accepted the proposal from only one provider, West Express, when requirements demand that there should have been three.
The ESFA also emphasized that some travel expenses, 17,000 litas in total, are “totally unreasonable.”
The agency’s response over the incongruities, however, reached the Office too late, after the officials had returned from their assignment. When confronted by Lietuvos Rytas, Kazakevicius refused to delve into the travel details, and sent the daily only the official program of the trip.

It reveals that the Lithuanian officials did not have to constrain themselves due to financial shortages in the country, as a New Zealandean Consultation and Logistics Company that had been hired in order to provide them with “proper” and “timely” trip arrangements.
The trip program suggests that the government officials did not have a tense schedule, as its official part would end in the early afternoons. It also mentions that the guests were given opportunities to go on extensive sight-seeing tours in the country.
Cornered, Kazakevicius tried to concoct a smart reason for the trip: “New Zealand has been deliberately chosen for the purpose as a non-EU country that is similar in size to Lithuania.”

Having returned to Lithuania, he presented the report about his “unique experience” in Wellington, including in it the observation: “In New Zealand, the assignment of state-governed company board members is concentrated in one institution.”
The vice-chancellor also claims to have found out that “In New Zealand, state-governed agencies and state company board members are assigned by an appropriate minister; however, he must obtain cabinet approval.”
“Human resources politics and payments are public and transparent,” the official infers.
While fellow government officials themselves sneer at such “mind-blowing” revelations by their colleague, it still remains unclear how the travel bills will be settled.

It seems that the ESFA’s refusal to fund the trip has caught off guard even its initiator, the prime minister’s office’s chancellor. “I do not know about the details. It was a normal business trip, and New Zealand was chosen as a country that is being very successfully developed. As far as I know, the ESFA approved of the bill. All inquiries should be forwarded to its book-keeping department,” Matulionis explained.
However, the ESFA spokeswoman Indrija Askeloviciene could not definitely say whether the officials’ travel expenses will be paid by the agency. “We have not received all documents proving the outlay of the expenses so far. When we will obtain the requested documents, the ESFA will decide whether to cover the expenses. I hope it will be done in the near future,” Askeloviciene told The Baltic Times.

Jurgis Razma, one of the leading Conservatives and elder of the Conservative faction in Seimas, reacted sternly to the public revelation about the trip, urging Kubilius on Twitter to fire his vice-chancellor, Kazakevicius.