Public Affairs: Inane Clown Posse

Scandal has never been far from Public Affairs since it entered parliament and the governing coalition nine months ago

Petr Bušta 11.4.2011
 | na serveru Lidovky.cz | aktuální zprávy foto: © ČESKÁ POZICE, ČTKČeská pozice
 | na serveru Lidovky.cz | aktuální zprávy

The junior coalition party Public Affairs (VV) appears in disarray with the latest in a series of scandals spawning speculation that the junior party in the coalition government could split, implode, or be shut out of the coalition government.

Even if the 24-seat strong parliamentary party comes through the latest scandal intact, another bruising encounter is on the horizon with party elections in May. Underperforming chairman, Interior Minister Radek John, looked vulnerable in light of the lengthening list of scandals and the party’s declining popularity in recent opinion polls.

Before the “cash-for-loyalty” affair, Radek’s main rival for the party chairmanship was Transport Minister Vít Bárta, the first deputy chairman — who has long been said to be the party’s de facto leader, in large part due to his role as its main benefactor/financier. Long suspected of unorthodox and authoritarian practices, allegations surfaced this week that Bárta has been rewarding his party colleagues for their loyalty — and silence — with cash payments. Regardless of their validity, this new scandal will not help his candidacy to unseat John, or the party’s own fortunes.

The main opposition Social Democrats (ČSSD) are having a field day. “A government member who is suspected of having bribed his deputies by means of envelopes with cash should not really stay in government,” ČSSD chairman Bohuslav Sobotka said, in calling for Bárta’s resignation as interior minister. “This is in the interest of any government that is trying, or should at least be trying, to maintain elementary trustworthiness among citizens.”

The man who made the “cash-for-loyalty” claims, Parliamentary Deputy Jaroslav Škárka — himself a VV deputy chairman and the party’s statuary representative until his off-the-record comments were published by the weekly Respekt — says he has received some Kč 500,000, essentially in bribes, from the party. Earlier, Škárka said the money came from Bárta’s own pocket, but was paid out in cash by VV deputies Radim Vysloužil and Michal Babák, who of course both deny having acted as bagmen.

As statuary representative, Škárka signs all documents relating to the party’s finances. He claimed to have received a cash payment of Kč 170,000 last week for keeping quiet about strife within the VV parliamentary caucus. While Respekt has said it has other sources confirming Bárta’s cash payments, Czech Position thought it worth taking stock of Public Affairs’ many trials, tribulations and outright oddball goings on in the short time that it has been in existence and in government: The Škárka affair is only the latest in a long line of this inane, clownish posse’s self-inflicted wounds.

Pre-election aperitif …

Vigilante patrols

Shortly before the general election last July, VV attempted to organize so-called social-intervention patrols aimed at reducing crime on the streets. Critics were quick to draw comparisons with vigilante style initiatives by the Communist Party and the Nazis. Nevertheless, controversy over the project was soon drowned out by more interesting details from within the prospective new party. 

Statuary rights

First of all it emerged that VV chairman Radek John was not legally entitled to sign contracts and agreements on behalf of the party or act as its statuary representative. These rights were held by none other deputy chairman Jaroslav Škárka. Although VV was quick to sort out this absurdity, some observers concluded that John’s real position was more as the party’s figurehead rather than its leader and that the real boss was the party’s main paymaster, Vít Bárta, who is now the Minister of Transport.

Kč 7 million disobedience fines

Prior to the general election, VV candidates were obliged to sign an agreement pledging obedience and loyalty. The agreement stated that if a parliamentary deputy defects to another party he/she would have to pay a fine of Kč 7 million. They also promised to vote only “in line with the position of the [party’s] club of deputies or in line with the stance of the political party.” However, this clause likely contravenes the Czech Constitution regarding individual rights of lawmakers.  VV therefore  added an amendment stating that in the case of a dispute, the Constitution takes precedence over the internal party agreement.

Internal election farce

VV organized an Internet referendum of its supporters on whether the party should enter the coalition with the center-right Civic Democrats (ODS) and TOP 09 parties. Members registered on the party website prior to the general election were entitled to vote. Nevertheless, due to a technical fault or unknown glitch, they had to reregister. What’s more, those who voted against coalition participation were informed that their vote clashed with the party’s adopted position and were invited to vote again.

In power, Public Affairs sought to grab headlines but often found these were for the wrong reasons:   

Vít Bárta in the driver’s seat …

In a blaze of publicity, Minister of Transport Vít Bárta ordered a halt to all railway construction works soon after taking office last August. Two months later, he discretely ordered work resumed. The ministry said that the construction companies involved had agreed to give discounts. However, the construction companies denied this, and said savings had been made by canceling certain elements in projects’  documentation. Such a move can only be made by project planners and not contractors. So Bárta’s claims of success were exposed as a PR trick.            

… risks arbitration with motorway constructors 

Last summer Vít Bárta also called a halt to the construction of several sections of roads and motorways although the contracts say such a step cannot be made without the consent of construction companies. The Road and Motorway Directorate (ŘSD) then started to negotiate with them. According to Czech Position’s information, the ŘSD acted too late and ineffectively. The construction firms involved have warned that international arbitration could result from the blundering action.           

… discredits Skanska

In March, in an interview with TV host Václav Moravec, Vít Bárta sharply criticized the biggest construction firm on the Czech market, Skanska, claiming that there were numerous shortcomings with roads and motorways built by the company. Bárta said the damages due to the alleged poor work amounted to almost Kč 500 million and issued orders for signs discrediting Skanska to be placed on 10 stretches of road built by the company. However, these included sections the company had not handed over or for which the ŘSD admitted that it was responsible for mistakes.   

… planning a super-strategy

Two financiers who previously held high managerial posts in the powerful PPF group have been given prominent positions in the ministry. The managers Petr Sedláček and Pavel Janda have been given the task of arranging alternative financing for transport infrastructure projects. Within a matter of days of their appointment, Bárta announced a new transport “super strategy” based on the  public-private partnership (PPP) financing model. It will be interesting to see what private financing flows in and from whom. 

Bárta’s security firm follows politicians

Bárta is suspected of ordering his security service ABL to conduct surveillance of ODS politicians in Prague 11 when he was still the official boss of the company. Initially Bárta denied ABL carried out such activities and even gave his word on that to Prime Minister Nečas. Daily Mladá fronta dnes, however, published photographs, video recordings and computer files that the publication claimed proved that ABL really did follow politicians several years ago.             

Bárta initially said the paper’s evidence had been manipulated. He then maintained that the claims “only” related to the activities of an ABL subcontractor — private detective Pavel Pertlíček — and claimed that initially he had not been correctly informed about his company’s activities. He then admitted that four years ago ABL considered expanding its anti-corruption activities and offered services to the public authorities. According to Bárta, Prague 11 was a potential client and thus his firm “checked” out the politicians to see whether they could be of use to his firm. He then apologized to the prime minister and the affair was put on hold.

Totalitarian methods

In October 2010, Public Affairs’ deputy chairwoman Kateřina Klasnová sent a letter to the party’s leadership criticizing the dominant position in the party of her husband, Vít Bárta, accusing him of using “totalitarian” methods. “Simple ignorance of elementary principles within the party and noncommunication on the part of VB (Vít Bárta),” the letter stated.

At the end of March, VV parliamentary deputy Stanislav Huml sent a similar letter to party colleagues, stating the top figures in the party are “capable of anything” and their methods include blackmail and applying concerted pressure on individuals. And now Škárka has again raised the issue of surveillance, although he probably has no supporting evidence. On the other hand, what is sure is that VV’s parliamentarians are bound to seek the permission of the party bosses before giving an interview to journalists. And the party’s leadership is very well informed about all journalists.

Radek John recruits police president

Even before becoming minister of interior, John called for the replacement of Police President Oldřich Martinů. After Czech President Václav Klaus persuaded Martinů to step down, John organized a selection process for a new police president. But this sparked a highly public clash with Prime Minister Petr Nečas (ODS), who claimed it didn’t conform with state administration rules.

Legal experts also questioned the high speed with which the new police president was selected, saying that the candidate must have been chosen beforehand. Nevertheless, John managed to get his candidate, Petr Lessy, appointed. 

Minister Jankovský’s family business

Minister for Regional Development Kamil Jankovský transferred management of his family business Phar Service to his son prior to being named minister. Nevertheless, the company afterward won almost Kč 200 million in contracts from major Prague hospitals.

For example, the day after his appointment the firm won a contract to build a multipurpose operation theater in the Institute of Clinical and Experimental Medicine (IKEM) in Prague. Then in August, Phar Service won two more contracts with IKEM, including for cleaning services and an Kč 8 million contract with the Vinohrady hospital. 

Although Jankovský says that his family firm placed its bid in the IKEM tender well before VV entered the coalition, police are investigating the deal to build the operation theater for suspected overpricing. Anti-corruption police are also investigating the tender itself.

Dobeš’ escapades:

Suspect express audits

Upon being named minister of education, Public Affairs deputy chairman Josef Dobeš ordered an audit of the ministry’s personnel and processes, each eventually costing Kč 1.95 million. some Kč 50,000 more than specified in the tender. The contracts caught the attention of corruption watchdog Transparency International and the Office for the Protection of Competition (ÚOHS). On the basis of the audit, Dobeš’ earlier rival to be minister and head of the ministry’s section for EU funds, Jan Vitula (TOP 09), was dismissed and over a dozen of the ministry’s staff resigned in protest.           

Disastrous personnel policy  

In the space of half a year Dobeš has replaced the head of his personal team at the ministry four times (Šedivý, Mastný, Říha, Machálková) and is now looking for a fifth. He replaced all the staff in the press department, considerably raised its number of staff and employed people with insufficient qualifications. Dobeš’ first deputy minister, Kryštof Hajn (VV), managed to shock the academic community with talk of blackmailing the rector of the České Budějovice University. Dobeš has surrounded himself with crisis managers, though experts have cast doubt upon their abilities.    

High wages and homework

As reported by Czech Position, selected employees at the ministry have been given unusually high wages. Dobeš’ adviser and former head of cabinet, Jana Machálková, who is still a student, was paid a gross salary of Kč 145,330 for December 2010, while for the same month ministry spokesman Václav Koukolíček collected Kč 129, 321. Soon after the salary exposures, the daily Mladá fronta dnes reported that Dobeš was suspected of writing a dissertation for Machálková while drunk in his office. It was also revealed that Machálková read certain employees’ correspondence. Dobeš also spent Kč 70,000 of public funds on a photo shoot of himself and his family that he used for self-promotion.                     

Trouble with EU funds

The ministry’s staff upheavals resulted in inefficient drawing of EU funds. The problem, which Dobeš inherited from his predecessor Dagmar Kuchtová (Green Party, SZ), has worsened and two weeks ago the ministry received a critical letter from Brussels concerning the Education for Competitiveness Operational Program (OPVK). Another letter is reportedly on the way concerning billions of crowns for science funding through another operational program. The result may be that the Czech Republic will forfeit billions of crowns in funding for education and research.

Extremist adviser

Dobeš recently considered naming a former candidate for the extremist National Party, Ladislav Bátora, as a deputy minister. In the following uproar Dobeš brought Bátora into the ministry as his economic adviser. Protests from universities, civic movements at what they perceived as the employment of an extremist did not deflect Dobeš’ move which had the blessing of President Václav Klaus’ office.

Protected by golden cash cow

Roughly nine months have passed since Public Affairs entered parliament and joined the governing coalition. The upstart party’s rush to do so much has exposed many of its nominees to top government posts as clearly incompetent and lacking intelligence and a strong sense of responsibility. Its parliamentary seats are nevertheless needed by its coalition partners — the center-right ODS and TOP 09 — to retain power. For the time being at least, the golden cash cow called the governing coalition cannot do without VV, and that be its best guarantee for staying on the center stage of Czech politics, even if they have been exposed as clowns.