Slovakia's national minority commissions to approve funding apparently rife with conflicts of interest
News server Aktuality.sk reports that last year, when the Slovak Parliament approved the National Minorities Culture Fund, it was said that to be the first step towards justice for minorities in Slovakia. National minorities were empowered to determine independently where they most need to invest public money for support of their culture.
In response to this news, Slovak MPs allocated a budget of EUR 8 million. Last summer the minorities chose their representatives and formed commissions based on nationality to evaluate the projects proposed for funding.
The Fund Director admits that one of the commissions is a mess. "The fund aims to promote and develop culture for 13 national minorities, but the only problematic one has been the Romani minority," says Fund Director Norbert Molnár.
Ladislav Richter and Marta Richterová were members of the first Romani Commission. Their nonprofits also applied to the commission for funds and were awarded them.
The state will send another one of their siblings more than EUR 121 000, while an organization headquartered at Ladislav's son's address will receive another EUR 20 000. Overall, the Richter family has received EUR 141 000 of the EUR 700 000 package.
The Richters, though, don't see anything wrong with that.
I left the room
Moyzes Street in Holice is busy at lunchtime on a regular business day. We stop at a yellow building with a silver car parked outside.
There is no name on the mailbox or doorbell. We ring the bell.
A young boy comes to the window on the ground floor, and after hearing our request, he calls on a woman to come speak with us. An NGO called Roma Interaction of the Záhorie Region is apparently headquartered in the house, which belongs to Marta Richterová, and she also resides at that address.
"It's not a conflict of interest, I did not vote for myself, I left the room," says Marta Richterová about the approval of the grant. The Fund Director, though, has now drawn attention to the projects.
When we ask whether she sees a problem, she counters by asking: "Why? ... I have been receiving these subsidies for eight years."
Richterová says she also believes it is appropriate that she and her brother both sit on the Romani Commission. "We are a non-profit organization, not a commercial one, so far it hasn't occurred to me to do that," she says when asked why her organization does not have its name on the building.
She applied for the position of the fund's manager this summer. Among the fund's priorities are running transparent commissions.
Ladislav Richter's NGOs are similarly "hidden". We set off onto the streets of the largest settlement in Slovakia in search of them.
On paper we have written down three addresses of four different organizations that will receive money from the fund. We stop at the first, a prefabricated apartment building on the Petržalka housing estate.
It is a purple building with no sign of the association by the entrance, just a doorbell that reads "Richter". We are looking for a group called ArtClassic.
The NGO was awarded EUR 20 000 euros for a project called Art Classic, o.z. According to our information, this is the address of Ladislav Richter's son.
We head a few streets over to the next building. We find the surname of "Richter" on the bell here, too.
This is apparently the address where Ladislav himself lives. There are other NGOs at the address that have received thousands of euros from the fund.
There are no other names on the bells, and we cannot access the mailboxes to leave the NGOs a note because the door is locked. The Association for the Emancipation and Integration of the Roma has been awarded EUR 13 000 for a Roma Conference and EUR 20 000 for Jazz Concerts and lists this address.
"That's not mine, it belongs to my ex-wife and I have nothing to do with her," says Ladislav Richter. We object that it is his very same address. "I haven't found the time to change it," he says.
Scholarship for a son
The "Council of Non-Governmental Organizations of Roma Communities" is based at his addresses. Richter admits that.
The Council has been granted EUR 35 900 for a Roma festival, but the organization's website has not been updated in over a decade. "I'm giving up that project, I got a construction commission and I won't have the time for it," Richter tells us. At the fund they did not know anything about that news.
Richter also does not see a problem with the fact that it is not possible to find his organization's name on the doorbell. "There is a box inside, you just had to ring me and I came to open the door," he says.
The fund has also approved a scholarship of EUR 8 000 for his son Mario to research Romani music.
Richter contradicts himself
A third building at Petržalka houses a third Richter non-profit. We enter the facility which is a combination of offices and flats.
On the ground floor we are welcomed by an elderly porter. "Is the 'Council of Roma NGOs' here?" we ask him.
He points us to the far wall, where there are dozens of boxes. One is labeled "Ladislav Richter" and under that, the name of the association.
"That one's not mine and I do not know who owns it. You know, if someone is successful, others will set up a similarly-named organization," Richter had told us the day before.
Do you feel like you've heard the name of that nonprofit before? Yes, the association from the previous building has almost the same name. The state fund has awarded it EUR 20 000 for a project called "We do not want to be discriminated against, we want opportunity!".
So: Who is Ladislav Richter? His name is well-known among the Roma.
In the past he co-founded the Party of the Roma Coalition, which reported to the governing "Smer" party. He once worked at the Office of the Government under Dušan Čaplovič and gladly met with other "Smer" politicians there.
When Richter recently asked for these latest subsidies, he justified the request by asserting that Viera Toman has visited his festival, and his nonprofit supported her candidacy for the post of ombudsperson for children's rights. He also says he did not participate in the assessment of his projects when they were awarded funds by the Romani Commission, standing "outside the room" during the voting.
Two years ago another Roma politician, Alexander Dasko from Banská Bystrica, ran for Parliament as the only Romani candidate for "Smer". People did not vote for him, but the fund has now donated EUR 40 000 euros to the Lavut association that he represents for a project to represent the Roma abroad. A group with that same name -spelled with a small letter "l" - was allocated EUR 25 000 for a project called "Saxophone" by the second Romani Commission and another project was allocated EUR 50 000 for the "Gypsy Fire Festival" by the third Romani Commission.
Two other Romani Commission members have not been shorted either when it comes to allocations. A nonprofit from Rimavská Sobota that is close to Romani Commission member Zita Gazsová was awarded EUR 31 800.
An NGO in which local assembly member Dušan Várady of the Kráľ village once figured as CEO has been allocated EUR 19 000. For some reason, however, those NGOs who actually achieve results in the area of Romani inclusion in Slovakia have been unsuccessful in their applications to the fund.
One such organization is ETP-Slovakia of Košice. In 2015, their self-built home project was awarded by Brussels as the best civic project of the year in the EU. but this year a big "zero" is shining in the column next to their name in the fund's application results.
"Organizations that represent or work closely with the members of the evaluation board should not submit a project in a particular call at all," Šlávka Mačáková, head of ETP-Slovakia, commented to us.
The approval of these subsidies also caused disruption for the second Romani Commission. Ján Konček of Martin, Slovakia sat on that commission as part of a four-member group.
He is a member of the Fund's Board of Directors - and submitted a project himself for EUR 199 000 euros for a Romani radio station. It was approved!
"I do not feel any conflict of interest, I did not vote for it," Konček told us, seeing that fact as making the process sufficiently transparent. He said he warned the fund management in advance that he was asking for money and says it does not break the rules for him to apply.
Konček also said that if he were not a member of the commission, he fears that a less competent person would be involved in the project assessment. "I am not dependent on money from the project, so if somebody comes and shows me that he will do a better job of creating the radio station, I will give him the project," he emphasized.
He owns several companies in Martin and also operates the Radio Rebeca station. The most interesting thing here is something else, though: Money for Romani radio was also applied for by the Nonprofit Initiative, which officially owns the Romani Radio station, and a company with the same name has been assigned a frequency for broadcasting. "One association is involved with the technical side and the other provides content," reveals Konček's website.
Two people and a network of companies
Already in the past, various organizations and companies from Konček's circle have received tens of thousands of euro in subsidies for radio-related investment. For example, five years ago, Neco Trading s.r.o from Martin was awarded EUR 21 000 for the employment of radio editors from the Labor Office.
That company was owned by Konček's business partner and neighbor, Milan Nemček. Although the entrepreneur from the north likes to talk about quality, the outputs from some of his projects are actually the opposite of quality.
"I cannot guess how many daily listeners we have, but we should reach up to 400 000 people," he says about his listener's habits. It's hard to judge listenership, but views of the video footage on the radio station's website number in the double digits only.
Indeed, in the interview section the videos have only been viewed by five people. Two of them also sat on the fund as part of the commission for the selection of projects: Maroš Balog and Jozef Pišta.
Subsidies, subsidies, subsidies
The Nonprofit Initiative received a subsidy in 2013 from the Slovak Ministry of Foreign Affairs for EUR 24 000 to produce multicultural videos. Their seven short films have 6 100 views on YouTube's social network today, some of them numbering in the hundreds.
A year later, the ministry gave them another EUR 10 000 for more videos. The views of the new ones on the social network have been in the double digits only.
That same group has now requested EUR 184 000 for radio equipment. That was not approved.
A third NGO is the very closest to Konček - "4U Slovakia". Its registered office is at the same address as Konček's company called Alium s.r.o .
The fund has dropped them EUR 50 000. "We want to build a professional Romani press agency," a Mr Martinčan from 4U Slovakia explains.
In the third Roma commission, Konček's business partner Milan Nemček was seated right next to him. The Director of the Turčian Library in Martin acts on behalf of the Nonprofit Initiative and can expect EUR 103 000 from the fund for a project called "Who ares the Roma?" to make four films about the lives of members of the Romani minority.
Fund Director Norbert Molnár says his hands are tied about all of this. The Fund Director can only act according to the law, and not one of these cases has broken it.
All of the board managers were "not in the room" to vote on their own projects. The director has also emphasized that no one ever paid a penny to anybody else to apply for funding.
The mayor's pearls of wisdom
Similar games with NGOs and reasons for joy involve Tibor Balog, Mayor of the municipality of Sútor near Rimavska Sobota. That municipality with record unemployment is receiving EUR 10 500 for two projects to run just before the municipal elections.
One project is general and the other is more of a private initiative. The general project is for the preservation of the dance and music tradition in the ever-dwindling village.
The second project is by the Club of Hungarian-speaking Roma in Sútora (which received EUR 3 500). You can find this association registered to the home address of the mayor.
The Fund has sent him the money to create a summer camp for children. The club has now come to life after ten years of inactivity, but Balog explains that he has nothing to do with it.
"The headquarters address has remained at my permanent address because I was the club's founder before being elected mayor. At present, I am not the statutory representative of the association, nor its member," Mayor Balog tells us.
The mayor considers this information sufficient. "I hope that I have explained that there is no non-transparent connection between the municipality of Sútor and the Club," he says.
The distribution of money for Roma culture has also sparked controversy over which districts have received the most money. The locations are municipalities in the Gemer and Novohrad regions, where a large Hungarian-Roma community lives.
The record-holder is the district of Rimavská Sobota, where the fund is sending EUR 209 000 for Roma culture. On the other hand, the culture of the second most numerous minority in the Košice-okolie district will be supported with the sum of just EUR 16 000.
They were also interested in others
Funds have also been distributed to other minorities that are much smaller than the Romani community. For example, the Moravian Beautiful Country Organization has succeeded in being seated on the Moravian Minority Commission.
Of 13 approved projects, nine were awarded to the Moravian Beautiful Country Organization. One of them was a project called "Expedition Croatia 2018".
The Polish Club has promoted twelve of its 17 approved projects through its seat on the Polish Commission. The Croatian Cultural Union also scored 10 projects out of the 11 approved by the Croatian Minority Commission.
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