The “Srbija-Tis” Hotel is located in the very centre of Zaječar and its capacities are filled up only twice a year: in the period of the Guitar festival, and during New Year’s celebration. In 2013, there was yet another event which attracted visitors – while preparing the ground for extraordinary elections in June, party activists swarmed the town.
From 10 May till the end of June that year, as many as 1,020 overnight stays were paid for the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) activists, which cost 736,000 dinars in total, or about 700 dinars per stay. According to the documents obtained by journalists from Center for Investigative Journalism of Serbia (CINS), the whole amount was paid in cash, thus not through the party account.
No criminal liability for the responsible person in the party
According to the Law on financing political activities, the responsible person within the party may not be held criminally liable if the Anti-Corruption Agency finds irregularities in electoral campaign financing. Agency states that in March 2013 they proposed the Ministry of Justice to introduce criminal liability for the responsible person within a political party in case of not filing a report or filing a fraudulent report on campaign financing. The proposal has not been adopted till the present day.
In the report on campaign financing filed to the Anti-Corruption Agency, SNS failed to include the cost of overnight stays of its activists in the hotel. The fact that services of a transport agency Bortravel were used in the pre-election period was also omitted from the report. Borislav Rajić, owner of Bortravel agency, filed an official letter to the Anti-Corruption Agency stating that the party did not pay him the amount of 444,000 dinars till the end of September 2013.
The Law on financing political activities makes it obligatory for political parties to report all their campaign costs, while income concealment may also present a criminal offence with a prescribed sentence of up to three years of imprisonment. Illegally obtained money is confiscated by court, while in case of a guilty verdict the party loses a part of funds from public sources.
Nemanja Nenadić, Program director of Transparency Serbia, says that the case from Zaječar represents violation of law, that there would certainly be enough materials for misdemeanor charges, while there is a possibility of criminal offence as well.
However, no motion for launching of either misdemeanor or criminal proceedings against persons responsible has been filed till the present day.
Sources from the Anti-Corruption Agency did not want to comment on this case, as they are still working on it, as they say. The deadline to launch proceedings is five years.
The Agency documents indicate that over the last four years irregularities in political activity financing were established not only in the case of SNS, but other political parties as well.
They were looking for someone to sign
For the elections in Zaječar, which it subsequently won, SNS reported expenses at the amount of somewhat less than two million dinars to the Anti-Corruption Agency. Documents which CINS obtained from the Agency through request for access to information show that SNS tried to conceal more than one million dinars.
In the period May-July 2013, several payments were made to the “Srbija-Tis” hotel, at the total amount of 736.000 dinars. All three payment slips were addressed to SNS for payment of accommodation for its activists who were staying in the hotel at that time.
In the last four years in Serbia, parliamentary elections were organized twice; presidential elections were organized once, while local elections were organized several times. Political parties were concealing the costs in the course of electoral campaigns on all levels.
One of the payments was made by Milinko Živković, currently SNS member of the Republic Parliament. The name of Velja Ognjenović is printed on the second payment slip. The name of the Mayor of Zaječar is Velimir Ognjenović, who was on the SNS list at the time. The third payment slip, at the amount of 516,000 dinars, states the purpose of the payment: “costs of accommodation from May to June 2013 – Serbian Progressive Party”.
Milinko Živković paid the amount of 200,000 dinars. Talking to CINS journalists, he said that the money originated from activists, who were issued certificates on donation, and that he himself participated in this.
“The activists who were there, twenty of them, collected the money, 10,000 each, and gave it to assist the elections there (…) so I also gave money”, says Živković and adds: “They were looking for someone to sign, and I did not think it would be a problem”.
The “Srbija-Tis” hotel in Zaječar where Serbian Progressive Party activists were staying. Photo: CINS
However, in the part relating to contributions made by natural entities, the report on campaign costs which SNS submitted to the Anti-Corruption Agency does not mention Živković or the 10,000 dinar individual payments.
Likewise, activist accommodation costs are mentioned nowhere.
When asked whether he knows that the costs were to be paid not in cash but through the party account, Živković said without any further explanation: “It was thus requested by the person who was there, and it was done accordingly”.
Toplica Mitrović, owner of the hotel, says that what matters to him is the fact that the bill was paid, not who paid it, or how.
Velimir Ognjenović, Mayor of Zaječar, did not want to talk to CINS journalists, and also did not reply to the questions sent to his cabinet via e-mail.
Saša Mirković, now former President of Zaječar Assembly, and the leading person of Zaječar SNS and candidate for the mayor at the time, also did not want to comment on the disputable payments.
In the interview for CINS, representatives of the Anti-Corruption Agency explained that the Law on financing political activities stipulates that only the person proven to have had the intent of perpetrating the offence may be held criminally liable. The intent needs to be proven by the prosecution, while the Agency supplies evidence during launch of the proceedings. However, as they say, the issue occurs as they do not have authority to investigate.
Nemanja Nenadić says that the Agency is to report on cases of potential law violation to the prosecutor’s office, and that prosecutors subsequently establish whether there was a criminal offence: “I do not know whether the prosecutor would issue an indictment, but there is material for investigation”.
Few proceedings in courts
In the last four years, parliamentary elections were organized twice in Serbia; presidential elections were organized once, while local elections were organized several times. In the course of all campaigns, parties were concealing costs, as shown in the documents the Agency filed to CINS.
During the search of one of the safety deposit boxes owned by Goran Knežević, the police found somewhat more than € 160,000. “The money in the safety deposit box in Novi Sad comes from contributions and donations made by friends and supporters of the party”, said Knežević at the hearing in July 2009. As he said, the money was used to “pay for certain services, mobile phones and phone cards, phone units, as cash for petrol, stages, sound equipment, etc.”
In this period, the Agency discovered 31 cases of failure to report financing of political activities in campaigns. Out of 16 political entities (parties, movements, citizen groups) in which irregularities were found, the majority of cases of failure to report financing was observed in electoral campaigns of SNS (9) and Democratic party (DS) – four.
Financing of electoral campaigns was not reported three times by United Regions of Serbia (URS) and Movement “Živim za Krajinu” (Boško Ničić) three times respectively, while Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) failed to report such financing twice.
One of the cases discovered by the Agency took place before the Belgrade elections in 2012. One of widely known activities preceding the elections was certainly the April visit of Rudolph Giuliani, former Mayor of New York, who visited Belgrade upon invitation of SNS.
Aleksandar Vučić, then candidate for Mayor of Belgrade, told journalists on the occasion that SNS had not paid a single dinar for Giuliani’s visit. However, even though costs of Giuliani’s trip to Belgrade were not paid from the party account, costs of organization of his stay were.
During Giuliani’s visit, Ruskin & Hunt company organized the event “Belgrade Waterfront” (on 19 April), a press conference in the Media Centre, and a lecture in the Youth Centre (on 20 April), which cost about 283,000 dinars. The company stated these events in the reply to the Agency’s inquiry on what the company was doing for SNS in the pre-election period.
Still, information that VIP Lounge which Giuliani used at Nikola Tesla airport on arrival to and departure from Belgrade was also paid for was omitted. This cost about 105,000 dinars. SNS did not report this expense to the Agency, even though from its official letter to the airport it may be observed that it was this party that requested to use the VIP Lounge for Giuliani’s visit.
In the report on financing of the campaign in 2012, the Democratic party presented costs of purchase of pre-election materials which were higher than real, while in the following year it concealed costs of poster printing.
After the elections in 2014, DS omitted one sponsorship and conventions in Obrenovac and Subotica, which is why motions to launch misdemeanor proceedings were filed against the party.
Following the elections in Subotica and Zaječar, SPS did not present costs of advertising in local media.
According to the Law on financing political activities, if a political party does not use a special-purpose account for campaign financing, which also implies payments in cash, this constitutes a violation for which prescribed fine may amount to between 200,000 and 2,000,000 dinars.
So far, the Anti-Corruption Agency has filed eight motions to launch misdemeanor proceedings, while no criminal charges have been filed to the prosecution.
“Even if limits for contributions were abolished, parties would still not register all donors. I do not believe there is a single party in Serbia that would be willing to report that they received one million euros, or one hundred thousand euros from someone, as this would affect their popularity among voters”, says Nemanja Nenadić.
The case of Goran Knežević
The judicial case of Goran Knežević was the moment in which the public had the opportunity to listen about actual financing of elections directly from politicians. Knežević was arrested in 2008 in the capacity of Mayor of Zrenjanin for alleged abuses in relation to construction land.
At that time, he was a high DS official, while at the moment he is the vice-president of SNS and one of candidates on the electoral slate for the forthcoming extraordinary elections.
During the search of one of safety deposit boxes owned by Knežević, the police found somewhat more than € 160,000.
Payments to the party through sports club
In the course of 2007, companies owned by Mile Jerković, businessman, and his daughter Višnja donated one and a half million dinars to sport club Sportal from Perlez, which at the time had two members – Goran Knežević and Zoran Stojačić. Jerković is known in public as a cooperating witness in the trial to Darko Šarić.
At the hearing, Knežević said that the money was a donation for the party, and that such things are done quite frequently:
“This is a usual practice in financing political parties on all levels”.
When asked why money was paid to the Sportal account if he said it was intended for the party, Knežević said: “Donors do not want to show themselves as donors of political parties, and they insist they remain anonymous.”
“The money in the safety deposit box in Novi Sad comes from donations and contributions made by friends and supporters of the party, said Knežević at the hearing in July 2009. As he said, the money was used to “pay for certain services, mobile phones and phone cards, phone units, as cash for petrol, stages, sound equipment, etc.”
The safety deposit box was rented in March 2007, while he says that donations had started two years before.
According to court documents examined by CINS, a number of members of DS Zrenjanin Town committee took a stand in court. Thus, when asked by Knežević whether the said costs were financed through the party account at the time of elections, Vojislav Koncul, then head of the Town committee office, said that he would not know how they were paid, but that they were not paid through the party account.
Witness Zoran Mitrović, one of party donors, said at the trial that he gave Knežević the amount of € 45,000 several times, and that the money was intended to finance the party.
Knežević explained that rather than being paid through the party account, the money was given in cash because there are legal limitations as to how much money a political party is allowed to receive.
Despite admissions in court, potential law violation was never subject to interest of courts and prosecution. The money found in the safety deposit box was intended for functioning of the party and its electoral activities, as stated in the verdict of the Higher Court in Belgrade, but it was added that “the existence of the money (…) is not subject of the indictment“.
The Prosecutor’s office for organized crime did not accept the Knežević’s defense in court; thus, they say that financing of the political party was not subject of the proceedings.
“The prosecution did not examine legitimacy of financing of political parties, thus the Democratic Party, which is mentioned in the case, as well”, reads the reply of the Prosecutor’s office to CINS.
In the end of 2013, Knežević’s acquittal of charges became valid, and all the money was returned to him.
The story has been produced within the institutional support to the coalition prEUgovor by the Embassy of the Kingdom of Norway and under an EU funded grant, awarded in the Media Programme 2014. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of the Center for Investigative Journalism of Serbia and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union or the Norwegian Embassy.