SAO procedures: no guarantee for independence and neutrality

The State Audit Office (SAO) is again in action: this year the Democratic Coalition (DK), Movement for a Better Hungary (Jobbik), Momentum and Parbeszed were put on the stand. It is dangerous and illegal what the SAO does. Prior to the EP Elections, the SAO again used procedures on opposition parties, during which the general public is not informed about the background of the cases and which do not provide legal remedies against the sanctions.

One of the duties of the SAO is to oversee parties’ finances and campaign costs. In an ideal system, it would be acceptable for a public body to check the money used by the parties in the election campaigns. However, in our not-so-ideal system, we have doubts that after the sanctions imposed in last year’s parliamentary election campaign, the SAO again only found issues in the opposition parties’ management. Of course, the State Audit Office in all of their press releases mentions that ‘in all audits it acts in accordance with the relevant statutory regulations acting to protect the rule of law and within the framework of relevant laws the same statutory procedure is applied for each party. The SAO oversees each party on the bases of the same statutory regulations and procedural rules. This is exactly what guarantees the framework of the rule of law and compliance with democratic standards.’

It indeed does look like in this phrase that, in principle, the measures of law are to an equal standard. However – and this is something that we add -, the problems arise when we investigate the application of the law. It is not reassuring that an organisation, which job is to check parties, is lead by a person who was politically involved with the governing party. Nor is it reassuring that the Parliament elected the president of the SAO without the support of the opposition parties. In light of these facts, there is of course some doubt about the independence of the SAO.

Nor is the rule of law protected: there is no point in talking about the rule of law if there is no adequate remedy against a sanction. But, this is currently the case. In spite of this, the SAO says that it does not sanction because it makes individual decisions about the legality of a party's economy; and, if it finds any illegality, calls a party – in other words, obliges a party - to pay back the illegal contribution. The SAO therefore acts exactly like any authority, however it calls itself. The fact that another regulatory body collects the illegal contribution as defined by the SAO, is not a solution to the problem, but a problem itself. Hence, the parties fall between two stools. The SAO’s decisions cannot be challenged in court because the SAO itself cannot actually collect any money and the SAO therefore never has to prove the correctness of its claims in court. The recovery of funds collected by the SAO or the state support retained by the Hungarian State Treasury is pointless to be challenged in the courts by the parties involved: these bodies will only point at the SAO’s findings, proving the legality of their proceedings. Because the courts themselves are not entitled to control a party’s finances from the legality point of view, but the SAO is, the courts do not have to prove the correctness of the content of the SAO’s findings and even so, they would not be able to do so.

According to the SAO, the draft reports submitted are not to be known. On one hand, this statement does not have a legal basis, on the other hand this causes the SAO’s procedures to become unknowable and hence unclear.

I wish we could be convinced that the decision of an organisation led by a politician once involved with the ruling party could be independent even when the procedures are unclear and even without judicial control. Unfortunately, we are not convinced.

In the year of the European Parliament and municipal elections, it is particularly problematic that these decisions, which are unknowable for a long time and cannot be challenged on a legal basis, make it more difficult or even impossible for opposition parties that deserve more protection in the rule of law at all times to exist.

We do not think that parties should be allowed to slip over unlawful spending but we do know that only a neutral organisation, which is transparent in all respects is entitled to control it, and that parties can be subject to judicial review before they are punished. Only this would guarantee the independence and the rule of law tha SAO likes to refer to otherwise.

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