Milinko Živković, an official of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) at the time, paid a bill of 200,000 dinars in Zaječar based “Srbija-Tis” Hotel, in June 2013. Prior to that, he took money from 19 people, added some money himself and paid in cash, instead of using the party’s account, the accommodation of the activists engaged in local elections campaign.
In the report on campaign financing filed by SNS to the Anti-Corruption Agency, Živković is not specified as a donor, no data are supplied on contributions given by 19 more people, and neither the accommodation expenses for the activists are reported although this is mandatory under the Law on Financing of Political Parties. During the election campaign, the hotel received two more payments in cash.
The Agency had notified the Basic Public Prosecutor’s Office on this problem during the meeting held in Zaječar back in 2014. The then prosecutor and his deputy confirmed to the Center for Investigative Journalism of Serbia (CINS) that the meeting was held. However, no records on this meeting can be found in the Prosecutor’s Office, while the two parties do not agree whether any evidence was presented on this occasion.
The Prosecutor’s Office started investigating whether the Law was violated only after CINS had published the article on this case in March 2016. After that, the CINS journalists asked the Prosecutor’s Office whether they had initiated or plan to initiate proceedings against SNS. The new prosecutor did initiate preliminary proceedings, however it was too late, as the statute of limitations referring to this case soon expired.
The Law on Financing Political Activities stipulates that political entities are to cover campaign expenses only through a party’s special-purpose account, as well as that each expense is to be reported to the Agency. Violation of the law is treated as a misdemeanor leading to either the prescription of a fine, or, if it turns out that they have consciously concealed the financing – to a sentence for a criminal offence. In case of a criminal offence the prescribed sentence is from three months to three years of imprisonment.
In their interview to CINS, the Agency representatives pointed out that only a person proven to have had the intention to perpetrate a specific offence can be subject to criminal liability. Prosecutor’s office is in charge of proving such intention, while the Agency is to submit the evidence at the time of initiating the proceedings.
Former prosecutor Mirko Petković says that he would have investigated the case, had the Agency filed criminal charges following the meeting held in 2014.
Nemanja Nenadić, Program director of Transparency Serbia, does not see this as a good solution. He says that a better solution would be to have Agency submit the information to prosecutor’s office for further investigation:
“The Agency (…) does not have sufficient authorities to collect certain data, carry out legal hearings, take statements from citizens. Due to such insufficient authorities they may omit something, thus not providing everything that should be included in criminal charges”.
Preliminary proceedings instituted a bit before statute of limitations have expired
A payment slip of 15 June 2013 shows the amount of 200,000 dinars beneath which is a hand-written name of Milinko Živković, a Member of Parliament from 2012 to 2016. During the election campaign, two more “cash in hand” payments were made to the hotel on behalf of the party, in May and July. Thus 736,000 dinars in total were not reported to the Agency.
Talking to CINS journalists, Živković confirmed that he had collected 200,000 dinars and had given this amount to “Srbija-Tis” hotel. He said he didn’t see as a problem the fact that he did not use the party’s account and that he had done as advised by the hotel.
“The Agency (…) does not have sufficient authorities to collect certain data, carry out legal hearings, take statements from citizens. Due to such insufficient authorities they may omit something, thus not providing everything that should be included in criminal charges”
Nemanja Nenadić, Program director of Transparency Serbia
About ten days after publishing CINS’ article proving that SNS and other political parties were concealing costs during election campaigns, CINS journalists contacted Basic Public Prosecutor’s Office in Zaječar. Public prosecutor Slaviša Dimitrijević said that he would first contact the Agency and then make a decision with reference to institution of criminal proceedings.
CINS received the prosecutor’s answer on 1 April 2016, two years and eight months after the last sum had been paid to the hotel. If the prosecutor decides to institute criminal proceedings he must do it within a period of three years from the day of a potential criminal offence. Otherwise, the statute of limitations for the case shall expire.
When contacting the Agency, the prosecutor referred to a letter from CINS journalists asking the Agency to notify him whether they had filed charges for violation of the law.
The Agency answered that their representative had already discussed this subject with former prosecutor Mirko Petković and his deputy Dragan Božinović – almost two years earlier, namely in June 2014. The meeting was held with the aim to notify the Prosecutor’s Office on the Agency’s findings, and also in order to get “possible instructions from the Prosecutor’s Office to make further, more detailed inspection”.
Mirko Petković, the then public prosecutor in Zaječar, told CINS that he remembered the meeting, but also that the Agency had not supplied sufficient evidence based on which he could institute the proceedings.
”The fact whether the law has been violated should be checked. However, I cannot check it based on nothing but a hearsay (…). Give me evidence that the payments have not been reported, for me to make a proper analysis, compare things and then carry out the hearing”, says Petković. He adds that he does not remember that the Agency representative submitted the documentation during the meeting, but even if he did so, Petković is convinced that “something essential was missing”.
The Agency informed CINS that during the meeting their representative “had provided all the facts, evidence and information the Agency disposed of at the moment”. Based on the facts presented and pursuant to the principle of officiality, the prosecutor’s office was to decide whether the data provided are sufficient for instituting criminal prosecution”.
Following the meeting, the prosecutor’s office did not institute the proceedings, while current prosecutor Dimitrijević says that he has found no data on the visit of the Agency representative on that occasion and that there are no records that the meeting was held.
Nemanja Nenadić says that, in this case, somebody failed to do their job:
“If the meeting was held, and it seems it was as nobody denied it, then an official note thereof should exist, including the data whether the Agency did or did not submit any documentation. (…) Then it would be much easier to draw indisputable conclusions whether the Agency also bears some responsibility, or the responsibility lies only with the prosecutor’s office”.
A misdemeanor, not a criminal offence
Two years following the meeting, and after CINS had addressed the prosecutor’s office in June and August 2016, prosecutor Slaviša Dimitrijević requested from the police of the city of Zaječar to collect further information, with the aim to determine the existence of a criminal offence. Along with the report, in October 2016 the police inspector submitted to the prosecutor the very same documents the Agency had obtained in April 2014.
The Prosecutor’s Office and the Agency do not agree on the fact whether the evidence was presented during the meeting held in 2014.
In mid November, Dimitrijević concluded the preliminary procedure due to the fact that “criminal prosecution based on criminal offence from Article 38 of the Law on Financing Political Activities, became subject to expired statute of limitations”. In an official note he also specified that – based on the facts collected – this presented a misdemeanor liability the statute of limitations of which had not expired.
Former prosecutor Petković did not answer the question of CINS journalist why he, too, did not request further evidence from the police. Petković said several times that he would have investigated the case had the criminal charges been filed, namely that he had expected the Agency to institute criminal charges. Božinović, his deputy at the time, also agreed with this saying that in June 2014 they had only talked to the Agency and that the Agency had not supplied anything in writing.
“It is not easy to institute criminal proceedings, especially when the elections are concerned. You have to have firm proofs to be able to do so, so that you don’t have somebody blackmail or threaten you afterwards. (…) You journalists also know how it goes, especially when the governing parties are involved. Here the things have to be as pure as the driven snow”, said Petković.
The agency filed a request for initiation of offence proceedings to Misdemeanor Court on 7 March 2017, as they were waiting for “an official notification from competent prosecutor’s office that there are no elements for instituting criminal proceedings”.
The story has been produced 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 EU.