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Why Do Some Have Problems with Investigation into MP Expenses?

15. Aug 2020.
CINS editor-in-chief Milica Šarić; photo: CINS/Vladimir Miloradović
The numerous reactions to CINS’ database about MPs costs and one denial speak only of one thing – that we have to call on officials to be transparent and responsible more often and in greater numbers.

After we published a database titled How Much Does an MP Cost I got a call from Dragomir Karić of the Strength of Serbia Movement – current and hitherto MP – who told me we had incomplete information in the database. He said he was calling on behalf of Milanka Karić, as her brother-in-law, colleague and caucus whip. A representative of the Movement called later, too.

They explained that the Karić family members had given their MP supplements, which CINS had published in its database, to the Patriarchate of Peć as a gift, i.e. that the National Assembly was paying their supplements directly to that address. The cost of the supplements over the course of four years for the two of them amounted to 2.7 million dinars, i.e. 1.37 million each.

In the memo they sent, the Movement representatives claim that Milanka Karić “did not collect any money for herself” and ask that we publish their reply with an apology for the incomplete information found on the website.

The How Much Does an MP Cost database deals with the expenses of MPs from the beginning of 2016 to the end of 2019, i.e. with how much budget money was earmarked for their salaries, MP supplements, payouts for fuel to Belgrade, accommodation in the capital, business trips in the country and abroad for 402 MPs who passed through the MP hall during that time. (At least 100 of these MPs remain in the new parliament makeup.) CINS obtained the data from the National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia via the Law on Free Access to Information of Public Importance.

We discovered that those who represented us in the highest managing body in this period were paid 1.4 billion dinars, i.e. 1.9 billion with taxes. We focused on the expenses of the MPs who came to the capital for sessions in their own cars, as well as those who have apartments in Belgrade but nevertheless exercise this right. So EVERYONE who sat in the parliament for even a minute during that period ended up on our list.

What we never claimed was that the MPs took all the money for themselves, but it was clearly pointed out for each MP that the expenses in question had been incurred during their term in office. Regardless of what the MPs chose to do with that money.

MPs from the Karić family gave their salaries away and that is clear from the CINS database, i.e. from the official data.

Attached to the memo, Karić also sent a certificate of the Department for Budgetary, Financial and Accounting Affairs of the National Assembly, issued in May, proving that Milanka Karić submitted a request in May 2014 that her earnings based on the supplement be redirected to the account of the monastery of the Patriarchate of Peć in Kosovo and Metohija, which the Assembly did. We had been trying to obtain the certificate they sent from the National Assembly for almost two months, but to no avail.

The Movement officials also claim that Milanka Karić allegedly paid for her own travel expenses abroad, however we did not get evidence to support that.

The fact that the Assembly has not, to date, answered our calls or replied to our e-mails in which we seek confirmation of Karić’s allegations only shows how difficult it is to obtain information on payouts to MPs today.

After all, CINS had tried for seven months to obtain the official data that ended up in the How Much Does an MP Cost database.

Still, the Karić family members are not the first to call because they had a problem with our research.

In these two months there were several interpretations: this was our attempt to destabilize the elections, to side with the “boycotters;” an organized “callout” of MPs; insistence on the publication of all data on their earnings so that we may additionally humiliate the Assembly, and the like.

I can’t say that representatives of the opposition or the government stood out – there were individuals on both sides who perceived our project as a personal attack. I can honestly say that they read into the “dry” data a desire on our part to show that they are lazy, that they receive too much money, that they spend too much money etc. We, of course, never said that. In the article on the database we even have an interlocutor who says that the MPs do not get a lot of money, but also calls their efficiency into question.

Let me name just a few, so you can get the picture: Balša Božović of the Democratic Party called the fact that CINS had shared Gordana Čomić’s expenses on social networks rude. A female party colleague of his protested the fact that we were publishing the MPs’ photos next to the expenses because, as she put it, that information had already been public. If the information had already been public (and it hasn’t been for many years), then what is the problem?

Mladen Grujić is back in the Assembly, this time representing the ruling Serbian Progressive Party. His duty to talk with his people and explain his actions boiled down, during a CINS journalist’s call, to his vulgar remarks and hanging up the phone.

Marijan Rističević, president of the People’s Peasant Party, complained on Twitter that Democratic Party MPs got more for travel than he did, that CINS did not want to write about how Goran Ćirić of the Democratic Party was living behind the Assembly building and traveling to sessions (which CINS had already written about), and the like. Some accused us of doing the regime a favor. Those in power, as always, claim that we are working for the opposition.

But the arrogance of some went much further.

Colleagues from Prijepolje-based Forum Info website conveyed the data from our database in the context of two local officials. Even though our colleague did her job excellently, she was targeted by the Serbian Radical Party which put up a post on its Prijepolje chapter’s Facebook account claiming that the colleague was deceiving and confusing citizens on national grounds and discrediting MP Zoran Despotović two days ahead of the elections. By posting her photo and making insinuations, the Prijepolje Radicals directly targeted the Forum Television journalist and Forum Info editor and tried to discredit professional journalism in the most horrific way.

Our colleagues from JUGpress also wrote about Serbian Progressive Party MPs from Leskovac, Žarko Bogatinović and Olivera Pešić, conveying data from the CINS database, but a reaction from Leskovac Mayor Goran Cvetanović soon followed, at a party rally. There he presented a number of inaccurate information, clearly attacking the colleagues from JUGpress.

Luckily there were some who recognized the importance of publishing these data, who agree that citizens (ultimately the voters) should be able to see MPs’ salaries and other expenses, based on which they can form their opinions. That is why I hope we will soon receive and publish the expenses incurred by former Assembly speaker Maja Gojković, which the institution’s representatives accidentally or deliberately left out when they sent us the reply.

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