Filip Banković will be the chief technology officer and executive director for international markets at Roaming Networks, the company announced on its accounts on social networks in January 2021.
This company is publicly known primarily for Nenad Kovač, its majority owner. Kovač, a.k.a. Neša Roming, is a businessman whose operations have ranged from the company managing Belgrade’s public transportation ticketing system Bus Plus, operations in Denmark, to small hydropower plants where one of his partners is Nikola Petrović, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić’s best man.
In an interview with the PC press magazine, Banković recently, as a representative of Roaming Networks, talked about the company’s projects and the development of fifth-generation mobile networks, so-called 5G networks. This is a subject he is well versed in, since he talked about it in an interview with the same magazine two years earlier – but back then as a member of the Executive Board, i.e. as an executive director of national telecom operator Telekom Srbija.
Research conducted by the Center for Investigative Journalism of Serbia (CINS) reveals that Banković was not actually allowed to go from Telekom to Roaming because the Agency for Prevention of Corruption refused to give him the required consent in December 2020.
The Law on Prevention of Corruption bans officials from getting a job at or starting business cooperation with companies or organizations related to the office an official had held until then – so-called “pantouflage” – over the course of two years after the cessation of their public office, without the Agency’s consent. The goal is to avoid a conflict of interest, i.e. to prevent an outgoing official from abusing their political influence, contacts and information for gains at their new job.
According to the documents CINS received from the Agency, as one of the Telekom executive directors Banković was involved in decision-making on business cooperation between the state-owned company and Roaming.
Banković appealed the decision to the Agency Council (formerly Committee) on January 19, and the Council decided on the appeal no earlier than May, at which point he had already been at his new firm for five months.
The Council annulled the original decision and halted the procedure. The reason for that is the authentic interpretation of the Law on Prevention of Corruption which the National Assembly adopted in February this year, but which is applied retroactively, as of September 1, 2020. According to the interpretation, some officials, depending on their post, are not officials after all.
Nemanja Nenadić of Transparency Serbia believes that Banković had been committing a violation until the moment his appeal was decided on. He adds that this resolution of Banković’s case is a consequence of the harmful interpretation by the National Assembly. However, even if he had been handed down a fine and paid it, the money would have been paid back to him from the state budget.
“If, for example, an official is exempted by the authentic interpretation, and (previously) provided false data, did not report their property or lied about something that is a criminal offense, even if they did so deliberately, they would not be held accountable for that,” explains Nenadić.
Under the Law, because of the violation Banković could have been handed down a fine of between 50,000 and 150,000 dinars.
He did not answer the questions we had sent him via e-mail. In the appeal, Banković claimed, among other things, that the work he would be doing at Roaming was not connected with Telekom’s activities, nor with the business relationship between the two companies during the time he occupied the official position.
“I would like to point out that as a member of the Executive Board of Telekom Srbija a.d. I did not decide on the rights and obligations of Roaming Networks doo because the decisions that were made would have been made even without my vote, by the votes of the other members of the Executive Board,” Banković wrote in his appeal.
Officials mostly got consent
Filip Banković is not the only official to have requested the consent of the Agency for Prevention of Corruption to move to a different job position after working in the public sector. According to this institution’s data, from January 2018 to June 2021 public officials addressed it 98 times. In the majority of cases, 51 to be specific, the Agency issued consent, whereas in 20 cases it refused to do so in the first-instance procedure. It did not make any decisions in 27 cases because they were not about a public position, and more than two years had passed since the cessation of a term of office or because its consent was not necessary.
Requests for consent were most often submitted by assistant ministers and ministers, 23 of them, while 21 requests were filed by heads of public administrations, agencies and local public companies, and their assistants.
Among these officials is former minister of trade, tourism and telecommunications Rasim Ljajić, who early this year asked to be allowed to “perform occasional consulting services and cooperation with Arab countries” for Turkish company Bayegan Group.
He was given consent after the incumbent tourism minister, Tatjana Matić, said in a memo to the Agency that there had been no form of cooperation with the Turkish representative during Ljajić’s term of office.
Nonetheless, Ljajić told CINS that the job had not happened because he had waited for the consent for a long time, resulting in Bayegan changing its priorities.
“I’ve known [these] people for a long time, they haven’t done anything here, they work only with Arab countries. (…) We have common friends, they are originally from here (from Novi Pazar), I know these people completely privately,” says Ljajić.
Bayegan Group and basketball player Mirsad Jahović in April 2020 donated a portable X-ray machine to the COVID-19 hospital in Novi Pazar, a city which was a coronavirus infection hotspot at that time. The value of the machine is estimated at upwards of 35,000 dollars, broadcaster RTV Novi Pazar reports.
The institution from which the biggest number of officials departed is the Ministry of Finance, ten of them, and they requested consent for the purpose of cooperation with or employment at international institutions and consortiums, such as the Auditing and Consulting Association KPMG or the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), or for other positions in the public sector.
Nikola Petrović’s accidental oversight
When checking a potential conflict of interest, the Agency for Prevention of Corruption relies the most on officials’ claims, Internet search and statements from institutions.
Nenadić says that it is logical for the Agency to first address the body where a particular official was previously employed, but adds that there should be a mechanism in the event that the information is incomplete. He underscores that there is no option for someone “from the outside” to point out something controversial before the Agency gives its consent, because the procedure is not public.
According to BIRN, Nikola Petrović, President Aleksandar Vučić’s best man and former director of national transmission system operator Elektromreža Srbije (EMS), after the end of his term in office became the director and co-owner of a company called Mini Hydro Investments. In 2017 and 2018, he indirectly obtained shares in companies dealing with mini hydropower plants – Eco Energo Group, MHE Jabukovik and Županj.
Even though the Agency had given him its consent for employment at Eco Energo Group, Petrović requested consent for Mini Hydro Investments and MHE Jabukovik, as well as for another company – Eko Vlasina – only after BIRN released the article. He said that it was “an accidental oversight.”
Seeing as it had not been submitted by the envisaged deadline, the Agency rejected the request, which the Agency Council also confirmed after Petrović’s appeal.
This institution did not answer the question about whether it had launched a procedure against Petrović for that, while representatives of the Misdemeanor Court in Belgrade say that the Agency has not launched misdemeanor proceedings against him since 2017.
Nenadić highlights as another problem the fact that there are no clear criteria because of which an official would not be able to find a new job or start business cooperation. In his words, that is largely subject to the interpretation capabilities of the Agency itself.
He mentions, as an example, the situation in which Transparency attempted to hire the former Commissioner for Information of Public Importance, Rodoljub Šabić.
At the time, Šabić sought the Agency’s consent to work as a legal expert on articulating proposals for legal solutions, including the area of curbing corruption, seizing illegal property, conflict of interest, and suppressing money laundering.
The Agency rejected his request because the two organizations had participated in a joint project in the past, as well as because the office of the Commissioner had decided on appeals submitted by Transparency.
In a statement to CINS, Rodoljub Šabić says that this legal provision is bad and does not serve the purpose of curbing corruption. He thinks it can be powerful as an instrument of punishing or retaliating against the officials who worked in line with the law during their term in office, and who were not ready to take appropriate orders or make concessions.
“The Commissioner always resolves [issues] in the public interest, therefore, regardless of whether you from CINS, Transparency or some ordinary Joe submitted an appeal, I do no debate whether it is your subjective right to see it (particular information), but rather whether it is the public’s right to see it. Therefore, it is completely irrelevant who submitted the appeal.”
The Agency refused to give Šabić its consent three more times after that, and he appealed to the Administrative Court twice, however, he has been waiting for a decision of the court for three years now.
Mentor: Vladimir Kostić