Window for corruption is about to be opened

  • 2013-06-12
  • Interview By Linas Jegelevicius

In her very early thirties, MP Agne Bilotaite can boast of an incredibly successful political carrier - a second consecutive term in the Lithuanian Parliament. Some admiringly say her political wisdom and insightfulness comes along with her stunning physical and personal charm, the features that have nothing to do with her toughness and fierce defense of traditions: lawfulness and a sense of justice in Seimas’ Anticorruption Commission (AC). Her latest fight against some MPs’ proposed Public Procurement Law amendments, easing the procedures, has drawn public and media attention. She claims the window for corruption is being opened wide in broad daylight. Bilotaite agreed to discuss with The Baltic Times one of the hottest topics today - public procurement.

Due to its small size and the piercing feeling that everyone knows each other in Lithuania, it is sometimes jokingly called a land of brothers-in-laws. Is it possible to wage a successful fight against corruption when one is a relative to someone else?
It all depends on us and our approach to things. Perhaps it is impossible to fully root out corruption, as it is always here or there in one form or another. But our task is to change the people’s mentality. Make sure they are against it, as well as smuggled goods, and the black economy as a whole. What matters most is education, corruption prevention and empowering law enforcement in the fight. If we do not apply it as a complex of measures, we do not stand many chances.

Has Lithuania done enough in battling corruption?
No, it has not. Just look at who stands at the helm of the anti-corruption commissions in local municipalities. The municipalities’ heads lead them most. Therefore, it is not surprising that the commissions’ activities are formal and superficial. Obviously, it is nonsense to allow, for example, the director of a municipality’s administration or a vice-mayor, to lead the commissions. How can they be critical of their own actions? They cannot. Along with the other AC members, I have registered an amendment to the Public Procurement Law which, if enacted, would change the set-up of the local anti-corruption commissions. What we want is to put representatives from the municipal Council’s opposition at the helm of a local anti-corruption commission. We’ve also proposed that persons from the public would get the right to get involved in the anti-corruption commission work. This had to be done a long time ago. I believe that even on the municipal level the anti-corruption commissions should cooperate with the Public Procurement Service in ensuring transparency of the procurement procedures. If we could achieve that, it would be a big stride forward. I hope Seimas will approve the proposals.

Isn’t the use of EU money use often overlooked in Lithuania?
Absolutely. There’s this faulty approach to the money: “C’mon, this is European money. Don’t worry too much about it…” It’s wrong! Sadly, even Lithuanian lawmakers often see the money that way. If we see it that way, it means we are lowering the level of responsibility and, consequently, accountability. Another faulty approach about the EU funding is this: get the money as quickly as possible and use it in any way just to have it used. So not surprisingly, there’s the other side of the story: the money is often misused or squandered.

I remember former Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius had come up with the number 1 billion litas (290 million euros) that was, ostensibly, generated by the black economy in the country. Has the anti-corruption commission ever assessed what part of the EU funding has been misused in Lithuania?
It’s very hard to tell. It is estimated that the total current public tender value makes up some 14 billion litas. If a mere part of that sum was misused, we still will have a huge number.

A whopping 214 million litas is allocated for the upcoming Lithuanian EU Council Presidency financing. Has any controlling institution taken a close look as to how the money was, or is, being used? Aren’t there increased corruption risks when it comes to this size of public money?
Sure, when a large amount of money is involved, there always looms a risk of the money being misused.
Public procurement competitions, irrespective of the origin of money, let it be from the EU coffers or national budget, have always been grounds for increased corruption activities.

You’ve set alarm bells ringing regarding the recent proposals to amend the Public Procurement Law and facilitate the tender procedures. Why are they of such a big concern to you?
I believe the proposals on the amendments are appearing now, right before the commitment to the EU Council, not coincidentally. With lots of the 61 million euro package still to be shelled out, the battle for the money will just intensify. And this is not the first time that some of my colleagues are trying ferociously to push through similar amendments. Earlier, Valentinas Mazuronis, an MP with the Justice and Order Party, responded to the Foreign Ministry’s request to simplify the procurement procedures for Lithuania’s European stint. The legislative initiative was turned down on the governmental level then, but the determination to change the law remained.

How did the Ministry of Foreign Affairs argue the necessity for a simpler law?
It argued that the facilitation of the otherwise strict law is necessary to make sure the Lithuanian EU Council Presidency goes smoothly and is effective. Therefore, the procedures of the commitment-related tenders have to be simple, while the tenders have to be quick. I was among the lawmakers who bristled against the proposal and addressed the Public Procurement Service, asking it to work out suggestions for how to alleviate the EU commitment-related procurements. For example, allowing the expedition of the procedures just for exceptional cases, not for most tenders. However, the other MPs’ proposed amendments to the Public Procurement Law have paved their way onto the Parliament floor. If passed, they will affect a lot of the EU presidency tenders.

Does anything else concern you besides the proposed law amendments?
Generally speaking, the subject of public procurements is a very hard topic to speak about. For an ordinary person, it is very hard to explain what it is all about. For many people, it seems like a scary bugaboo that could be avoided on the daily route. But this is a big misconception. We deal with the results of tenders every day, sometimes not giving a lot of thought about them. In terms of transparency of tenders, really a lot has been done in that regard through 2008-2012. The procurement-controlling institution, Public Procurement Service, has been granted extra powers in making sure the process of procurement is clear and subject to control. But what I see going on now in the institution is very alarming. I see the ongoing efforts to weaken the Public Procurement Service as a deliberate striving to reverse it to the feeble institution that we had back in 2004, when the law was “toothless.” I’m afraid if the amendments are passed, the Service will be turned into an educational institution. That will for sure happen if we allow most tenders to be organized in a simplified fashion, for example, through unannounced negotiations. The latter is something the amendment initiators seek.

Is the latter most prone to corruption?
Yes, as a single tender participant can be announced winner.

What are the most common violations of the Public Procurement Law?
In most cases setting tender requirements and specifications in favor of one or another bidder. In other words, when deals are made and a winner is picked well ahead of the tender. These kinds of violations are often noticed with the naked eye.

Can you refer to any specific Lithuanian EU Council Presidency-related tenders that make you suspicious?
First of all, I really would like to wish anyone involved in the [tenders] to have it as smooth and transparent as possible. To answer your question, the tender for providing catering for the event guests seems to be the most suspicions. However, I need to get some answers before making any far-reaching conclusions. I have a hunch that all scandals related to the presidency and its money will spill over when the term is over. That is how it usually is in Lithuania. And I dare to say, most of the state institutions in control of public money use are also waiting for the end of the Lithuanian EU Presidency. On the other hand, if there are some complaints in regards to the presidency, they perhaps ended up in state institutions that are directly in charge of use of public money. Our commission is not a body that anyone with information about a violation would apply to.

What is your take that 99 percent of all the Lithuanian EU Presidency events will take place in Vilnius? Other EU Presidency hosts have shared the pie evenly to a number of cities.
Speaking on the whole, I believe that disparities of our regions are too big and need to be tackled. An event as big as an EU Presidency is a great opportunity to work on decreasing the differences and spur local business. It is a pity that Lithuania has concentrated all the events in the capital.

Do you believe the Public Procurement Law amendments will be passed?
Seeing how the ruling coalition is bulldozing them forward, I am pretty sure they will. It will be a sad day for all of us.