Indestructible Public Officials

Indestructible Public Officials

Organisation: Center for Investigative Journalism of Serbia (CINS) (Serbia)

Publication Date: 04/10/2017

Size of team/newsroom:small

Description

The independent regulatory body in Serbia, the Anti-Corruption Agency, is weak and its decisions are not respected by the authorities and are being undermined by high-ranking officials. Enactment of a new bill on the Anti-Corruption Agency, stipulating broader competencies to this institution, has fallen behind schedule for over two years. This was an incitement for CINS to look at the efficiency of proceedings against public officials for corruption. It turned out that data about cases against public officials stay buried deep in drawers, in extensive reports, far from public attention. CINS decided to make the data public and easily searchable in a comprehensive database. First, CINS made official cooperation with the Anti-Corruption Agency to collect all its data in one place since the Agency is not able to do it. The Agency conducts the proceedings on suspicion of officials breaking the law while discharging a function on various grounds: failing to report assets or revenues, failure to notify of the termination of function or assuming a new function, when there is a potential conflict of interest etc. The core of this project was to show who were the officials under scrutiny of the Agency, how many times and for what reason, as well as how those cases were concluded – the information that is not available anywhere online, is in the public interest and allows citizens to track the proceedings for corruption against those they voted for. We collected and processed information in hundreds of documents during six months; the sources were the Anti-corruption Agency, prosecutor's office, courts and other institutions as we showed the fate of each case after the Agency’s decisions (e.g. some were subject to criminal charges). After collecting and analyzing hundreds of documents, we created a unique searchable online database of proceedings brought by the Anti-Corruption Agency between 2010 and 2016. It contains detailed information on almost 2,000 cases against public officials, including ministers, state secretaries, ambassadors, MPs, mayors, local councilors, directors of public companies, deans of faculties, judges and others. It also contains Agency’s conclusions in such cases and decisions of the institutions. The database is searchable by names of the officials, institutions and positions that they have been holding, the nature and the outcome of the proceedings and the grounds for their initiation. We are currently updating the database with more search options. Also, we are including a very large number of court cases against officials that have never been analyzed. With this new data, we intend to discover why levied fines hovered around the legal minimum or even dipped below it, with a lot of settlements and large number of cases falling under statute of limitation. Stories based on the database are included in the series of articles nominated for the European Press Prize 2017 in the investigative reporting category.

What makes this project innovative? What was its impact?

It was very important to show the real picture behind the altered reality painted by politicians and pro-government media. With the database and stories stemming from it we wished to diminish the atmosphere in which it seems that laws do not apply to public officials. This is a unique database in Serbia; it’s focused on all the ways officials use to breach the law. Our intention was not to scrutinize politicians for their private assets but only to pinpoint the ones that are/were in a conflict of interest. In the first couple of days after publishing a database people were keen to search and check their local officials, so there were around 17,000 entries to the database on our website. Two CINS stories came out as a result of the database. Just days after the Serbian parliament was constituted, database showed that the Agency brought proceedings against 51 out of 250 members of the Serbian National Assembly. The Agency’s findings are not being acted upon and sanctions are too lenient, so they are not discouraging for potential offenders. In five of these cases, the Agency brought criminal charges, but there was no resolution. Agency issued 81 recommendations for dismissal of public officials for various violations of the law. We decided to follow this trail as well, resulting in the second story. In most cases institutions where the officials work decided not to accept the dismissals. For officials who were dismissed or who resigned from their positions, the notion of political accountability is short-lived; thus, they later reappear as claimants for the same or similar functions. According to the database, the Agency has imposed a measure of warning in 1,331 cases, 97 recommendations for the dismissal, and 138 public announcements of the decision on the violation of the law. Initiated proceedings were suspended in 142 cases. Local Serbian media used the database to investigate proceedings against officials in their towns and many stories emerged.

Technologies used for this project:

We filed around 140 FOIA requests to different public institutions such as courts, city councils, public schools, hospitals etc. The biggest problem was to discover the responsible institutions we can request the information from. For instance, to get the information about criminal charges we had to send three different requests to different institutions. Institutions replied mostly via mail in hard copy. So, firstly we had to scan all the documents and make them searchable. We put all the information in the Excel and categorized it so we can easily access and track all the cases. Before the Excel file was sent to the programmers we needed to fact-check all of the tables with more than 2000 different sheets, so the whole newsroom was engaged on this for days. After the analysis of the information in Excel, the first two stories came out. The first version of Excel had more sheets, but in cooperation with programmers we decided to put it in fewer categories so it could be easier for our readers to understand it. Technology used: php, mysql, jquery, html5, css3, jquery datatables plug in.
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