It’s been a frantic first ten months in office for the Auditor General. THEO PANAYIDES meets a man determined to right the wrongs in the way things are done
Exiting the lift on the top floor of the Audit Office of the Republic – on my way to see Odysseas Michaelides, the Auditor-General – I notice a poster on the wall. It shows someone getting splashed in the face with a bucket of water, as if rudely awakened; the caption below the image reads “Time to wake up”, along with a phone number (70070011) one can call to report instances of corruption. This is not the Audit Office’s own poster, Odysseas explains later; it’s the work of an NGO called Transparency International – but the Office have agreed to put up their posters, and established a procedure to follow up complaints where appropriate.
That phone number gets quite a few calls, he confirms – but “we [at the Audit Office] also get many, many complaints”. For a long time (decades, in fact), people were afraid that nothing would be done if they reported corruption – and, even worse, that they’d end up getting in trouble themselves – but “I must tell you that, in the past few months, the number of reports we receive has increased significantly”. Cypriots, it seems, have decided to wake up – or just taken the opportunity to snitch on those they resent, but that’s OK too. Odysseas cites the case of a man who reported that he paid X amount of tax on his property but his neighbour, with a near-identical plot of land, paid much less; the man was clearly motivated by jealousy – but in fact he was right, a mistake had been made at the Tax Office, and the mistake was corrected.
This newfound appetite for rooting out misconduct is partly down to historical circumstances. In the throes of financial crisis and the aftermath of the haircut, people are looking for someone to blame, and certainly much less tolerant of behaviour they’d accepted for years – yet part of the reason for the change also comes down to the new Auditor-General himself, only in the job since April 2014 and rapidly becoming a household name. A quick search on the Cyprus Mail website brings up a host of recent headlines in which Odysseas was involved. “Auditor-General takes on CyTA over past sins”. “Beaches’ audit reveals chaos”. “New headache for Vergas as state auditor checks out his tennis court”. “Auditor-General eyes council cheats”. “Auditor-General now eyes Nicosia sewage board”. “Tax payments of public officials to be investigated”. “Bribery began with a leg of smoked ham”.
The man himself is 46 years old, with narrow eyes behind thick glasses, a harsh raspy voice and grey-flecked facial hair halfway between thick stubble and a scraggly beard. He’s a civil engineer by training and the engineer’s temperament comes through in his manner, which is plain and direct; he doesn’t stand on ceremony. On a sideboard in his spacious office are photos of his family (he and his wife Nana have three kids: a son who’s almost 17 and two daughters, 15 and 10) as well as a card with “From all of us” on the cover. I thought this might also be from his family – but in fact the hand-written message inside comes from “the gang”, viz. the friends he made in his previous job at the Audit Department of the Ministry of Communications and Works, where he worked from 1998 till last April.
It’s presumably a mark of the man that his former colleagues valued their director enough to present him with such a personalised going-away card (and that he values them enough to display the card in his new office). Then again, his time at the Ministry of Communications was often memorable – especially when it came to the new Nicosia General Hospital, a project President Tassos Papadopoulos once called the biggest scandal in Cyprus history. “This was a project,” says Odysseas, mincing no words, “where all the institutions that could’ve intervened in the project, without exception, utterly failed to do so. The Public Works Department, the Treasury, the Audit Office – all of them turned a blind eye, and the only ones who basically resisted, and often came into conflict with those behind the project, were the Audit Department.”
He recalls newspaper headlines like “The Odyssey of a Hospital” (punning directly on his first name) or “Ministry Official is a Law Unto Himself”. The story, according to the papers, was that the hospital wasn’t being completed because a rogue civil servant was causing problems. He came under great pressure to toe the line, especially after his superiors had departed or retired (he pays tribute to his mentor, the late Takis Papadopoulos, as well as his erstwhile superior Alekos Michaelides, “a militant enemy of corruption”): “I remember high-level meetings, maybe 20 or 30 people with a couple of Ministers present, and coming under pressure over a particular certificate, being pressured to approve a certificate of payment which I thought shouldn’t have been signed”.
That stubbornness was presumably what President Anastasiades had in mind when he named Odysseas to his current job – though he doesn’t come across as wilful, or a loose cannon, more a person with a lifelong sense of responsibility. He did his National Service as a sergeant in an armoured battalion (traditionally a tough posting) and rose to warrant officer in his second year, a big job in that little bubble-world. As a teenager, going off to study in Athens, “I was always about moderation. I had fun but I studied too, I was careful, there was always a balance”. There were (and are) lots of civil servants in his family – above all his father, “a man of principle, and a very strict moral sense”, whom he credits with showing him what a public official should be.
Never mind public official, though; what kind of man is Odysseas Michaelides? Much as you’d expect, it seems: a man of simple tastes and strong, old-fashioned values, maybe slightly boring (he’s a civil engineer, after all) but a good kind of boring. Asked what he does for fun, he talks of going for coffee with his wife, or dinner with friends. He doesn’t frequent bars or clubs, preferring tavernas and ‘family’ places. He likes to read, mostly books on psychology (especially child psychology), politics and history; novels aren’t mentioned, neither are films or TV shows. He doesn’t much care for sports or exercise, though he and Nana take long walks and he’ll go jogging occasionally. He’s quite often recognised in public nowadays, but has only ever heard “positive comments” from those who greet him. He doesn’t think his life has changed significantly as a result of his new job.
Family is hugely important – it’s “the most important factor in moulding character,” he says, thinking both of his dad’s influence on him and his own responsibility to his children – and he lives his life accordingly. Even now, despite his workload, he prefers to leave the office around 4.30 so he can be home with the wife and kids while the house is buzzing, then works for another three hours or so (typically nine o’clock to midnight) when everyone’s asleep or watching TV. “When I’m home, I generally try to be part of the family,” he tells me. “We’re quite a close-knit family. When we go on holiday we always go together, all five of us”. I forget to ask if he’s religious, but the reverent way he pauses and solemnly notes that only God knows for sure (when he’s trying to calculate how much longer he’ll be Auditor-General) makes me think it’s more likely than not.
In fact, he’ll be Auditor-General – God willing – for another 18 years, unless they change the age of retirement or he decides to resign. Odysseas is a man at the start of a new chapter (hopefully the crowning chapter) of his life, which perhaps explains his current zeal; he’s gone after several once-sacred cows in the first 10 months of his tenure, his latest quarry being TEPAK University in Limassol where suspects have already been arrested on suspicion of fraud. Can he keep this up? Will he even want to, when (or if) we finally exit the crisis and the public appetite for scandal begins to wane? The crisis has nothing to do with it, he replies firmly. “I see that this [job] will be my home for many years to come, and I’ll do what I can to ensure that my home is successful.”
At the moment he’s become a kind of symbol, a blank screen on which people project their hopes of a better tomorrow. “We’re the ones who first uncover scandals, let’s say, so people get the impression that only the Audit Office can clean up the Augean Stables,” he admits – though he thinks the praise is exaggerated, giving most of the credit to his three-way partnership with the Chief of Police and Attorney-General. After all, no one man can change a country; it’s the culture of impunity that has to change (and is now slowly changing). “I often say, by way of example, that when I was in my previous job, if I found myself in a group of people and mentioned that I was Head of Department at the Ministry of Communications, everyone pretty much assumed that I must be taking bribes,” he recalls. It almost went without saying that “if you’re a civil servant, and you get the opportunity, you’ll take it”. It’s hard (or harder) for honest people to thrive if the culture around them values dishonesty – and of course vice versa.
Change has to come from within. We ourselves need to be more ethical – not just “stick to the letter of the law”, that casual sophistry which so often allows for casual dishonesty. “There are certain criteria one should apply,” he says firmly. “Like: ‘If people find out what I’ve done, will I feel bad?’. If yes, that means I shouldn’t have done it. No matter if the law allows me to do it.”
Practical changes must be made too (and are now, slowly, being made). The scandals in Paphos showed the folly in allowing local councils, most of them ruled by party appointees, to administer large sums of money; the trick is to use the same checks and balances in local government as are imposed on central government (it’s not fatal if the Director of Public Works is corrupt, to give a hypothetical example, because he has no authority to approve extra money for a project; that’s done by another committee). Also, of course, the law must be changed to allow the finances of political parties to be audited. The loophole that allowed parties to receive money from contractors and call it a donation “was a source of shame for our society,” says Odysseas with feeling.
Will things change? It’s easy to be cynical. Even at a time of acute crisis, even with a government that seems to realise the need for reform, every timid attempt to change the system is beaten down fiercely by the usual vested interests. Still, Odysseas isn’t cynical. “I believe we are entering a new era,” he tells me.
“There may be resistance from the status quo – and I must tell you that the status quo continues to be very strong in Cyprus. But it’s not invincible. That’s what I believe. It may be strong – and indeed it has many tentacles, the status quo in Cyprus – but it’s not invincible. It’s resisting, but I do believe that we’re going to see improvements. Maybe in the end we’ll say that [even] more should’ve been done – yet I also think we’re about to see things being done that haven’t been done for decades.”
Has he ever tried to go after someone and met with resistance? Is there a limit to how much dirt he’s allowed to dig up, how high up he’s allowed to go? A slight hesitation: “What I can say is that, in every job, there are things which are possible and things which are impossible,” he replies candidly. Maybe that’s why he tends to court the media – not because he likes the publicity, as some have suggested, but because he knows publicity is “an ally of the Audit Office”. Public exposure makes him harder to fob off.
Our hour is almost up. To his credit, he’s ignored all texts and only stopped to take one phone call – but now his secretary knocks softly on the door of the office: “The Mayor is waiting”. Mayor or not, he can’t resist one final sally. “I know I must protect the good name of this office,” vows Odysseas Michaelides, “and do those things which I’d probably do anyway, because of my character”. Maybe we should talk again in 18 years, if we’re still around, and see if the Auditor-General has lived up to his frantic first year in office. Time to wake up, indeed.