Special advisors under special treatment: despite their influence, they are not held accountable for conflict of interest

29. January 2024.
foto HINA /Zvonimir KUHTIĆ
foto HINA /Zvonimir KUHTIĆ

There are two types of special advisors in Croatia, and both of them are exempt from proper conflict of interest monitoring mechanisms. Bearing in mind the importance of access to information for the purpose of public oversight, Gong presents a statistical overview of data on special advisors.

At the end of 2023, due to the outbreak of the Mreža Affair, which pointed to the purchase of favourable media treatment with public money, the Minister of Economy and Sustainable Development, Davor Filipović, was dismissed. In addition to Filipović as one in a series of compromised ministers during the mandate of Prime Minister Plenković, his special advisor Jurica Lovrinčević was also quickly dismissed, since his alleged influence on the distribution of more than 100.000 euros intended for media advertising reopened the issue of regulating conflicts of interest for persons in this position.

It should be noted that the term "special advisor" can refer to two different functions related to the work of the Government or a particular ministry, depending on whether the person is appointed on the basis of the Government Act or the State Administration System Act. The key difference is that a special advisor appointed under the Government Act is not employed in that position (although they may be a civil servant), but provides consultancy as an external expert and may or may not receive financial compensation for their work. In contrast, a special advisor appointed on the basis of the State Administration System Act is employed in a certain ministry and is guaranteed to return to their previous employer upon leaving that position.

Special advisors under special treatment: despite their influence, they are not held accountable for conflict of interest 1

However, what both types have in common is that regardless of the influence of the functions they perform, their appointment or dismissal is not subject to the regulations on the employment of civil servants. Advocating for greater transparency and more effective mechanisms for fighting corruption, Gong continuously warns that special advisors should be bound by the Conflict of Interest Prevention Act, like all civil servants, so that their actions in the public interest can be monitored by the independent Commission for the Prevention of Conflicts of Interest.

After collecting data on current special advisors through requests for access to information sent on the online platform Imamopravoznati.org, Gong presents a comprehensive overview of statistics on special advisors.

Special advisors according to Government Act

Ministries have a total of 31 special advisors appointed under the Government Act, and the differences in the amounts of monthly financial compensation they receive (if they receive it) can be accounted for by the fact that the person who appoints them decides on their remuneration.

Special advisors under special treatment: despite their influence, they are not held accountable for conflict of interest 2

The Ministry of Science and Education has the largest number of special advisors, but the Ministry of Regional Development and EU Funds has the highest expenses for the work of special advisors.

Special advisors under special treatment: despite their influence, they are not held accountable for conflict of interest 3

The highest monthly compensation is received by Zvonimir Savić, who provides advice to Prime Minister Plenković for free. For his consultations on strategic planning and coordination of EU funds in the Ministry of Regional Development he receives 1200 euros net.

High compensation in the amount of 1062 euros is received by Darinko Kosor (Ministry of Labour, Pension System, Family and Social Policy) for consultation on the labour market and EU funds, Vera Katalinić-Janković (Ministry of Health) for consultation in the field of public health protection, Dominik Skokandić ( Ministry of Spatial Planning, Construction and State Property) for consultation on the use of funds from the Solidarity Fund and the reconstruction of earthquake-damaged buildings, and Ivica Ušljebrka (Ministry of Defence) for preparing analyses and giving opinions on "certain issues from the scope of the Ministry".

Special advisors under special treatment: despite their influence, they are not held accountable for conflict of interest 4

Most special advisors receive between 300 and 800 euros net per month, while a few of them perform this work without compensation. Those who are working for free are the advisor in the field of tourism Ivan Herak (Ministry of Tourism and Sports), the advisor for administrative law Bosiljka Britvić Vetma (Ministry of Justice and Administration), advisors with a wide range of responsibilities in the Ministry of Agriculture - Krunoslav Lukačić and Mario Bratulić - as well as two advisors in the Ministry of health, Anka Jurišić-Kvesić, who specialises in dental medicine, and Miroslav Hanževački in the area of primary health care.

Special advisors under special treatment: despite their influence, they are not held accountable for conflict of interest 5

According to this law, the Office of the Prime Minister has seven special advisors. Ivana Vukov receives almost 1,200 euros per month for consultations in the field of improving public policies, Robert Kopal for his expertise on national security, and Damir Krstičević for consultations on defence affairs. Sara Lustig receives slightly less, but still more than 1,000 euros net, for consulting on Holocaust issues, combating anti-Semitism and on relations with Jewish communities. The other three advisors do not receive any compensation, namely Mate Granić as the advisor on foreign policy, Zvonimir Savić as the advisor on economic issues and Zvonko Kusić as the advisor on social issues.

Special advisors under special treatment: despite their influence, they are not held accountable for conflict of interest 6

In the Office of the Vice-President of the Government, Snježana Vasiljević is appointed as an expert on human rights, minorities, national and European anti-discrimination law and international legal aspects of gender equality and combating discrimination, for which she receives a monthly compensation of 796 euros net.

Special advisors in the cabinet of the minister (according to the State Administration System Act)

According to the Law on the State Administration System Act, a minister can employ up to three special advisors in their cabinet. Persons in this category are selected based on hiring calls, and the minister is in charge of appointing or dismissing them. The law prescribes the condition of a graduate university degree, and the job complexity coefficient according to which the salary is determined is 2.619. As a rule, special advisors in the minister's cabinet return to their previous position after the term of office of the minister who appointed them expires.

According to the information that Gong was able to collect, there are only four ministries that currently employ special advisors. Rajka Rajić and Petra Petrić are employed in the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs, Ane Radović is employed in the Ministry of Regional Development and European Union Funds and Tonći Buble in the Ministry of Health, while Iva Puljić Šego is employed in the Ministry of Defense. However, it can be assumed that at least one other ministry has a special advisor, namely the Ministry of Croatian Veterans’ Affairs, which rejected our request for access to information citing the protection of personal data. Furthermore, the inquiry sent to the Ministry of the Sea, Transport and Infrastructure did not receive any response.

Blurred status within the state administration system

As stated in the introduction, a key feature of the function of special advisors - regardless of whether they are external experts or employees - is the exemption from the application of legal provisions that regulate conflicts of interest. Key persons for the work of the Government can thus become people whose private interests overlap with the scope of the public authority in which they perform their advisory tasks, which was once again confirmed by the outbreak of the Mreža Affair in December. The case of special advisor Jurica Lovrinčević, who boasted that he controlled a whole set of public companies and funds, is particularly reprehensible because it points to the scale of possible abuse of such a position, and the insufficiently transparent circumstances of the appointment and work of special advisors allow for similar cases in the future.

On the one hand, key information about special advisors appointed under the Government Act is publicly available, so it is not difficult to find out for which area they are appointed and how much compensation they receive. On the other hand, the criteria for determining monthly compensation as well as the specific tasks they perform are often inaccessible even upon direct inquiry. As for special advisors in the minister's cabinet, they are employed on the basis of clearer criteria, but their names and range of tasks are less known to the public.

Easier access to information and improved regulation of conflicts of interest are part of Gong's recommendations for the transparency and openness of key political institutions - the Government, the Parliament and the Constitutional Court. Special advisors are an important link within the state administration system, regardless of whether they are permanently employed or external experts, therefore they must be subject to the supervision of the Commission for the Prevention of Conflict of Interest as well as the general public.

Gong collected data on special advisors by sending a bulk request for access to information to all ministries. Have your own research idea? Create a profile on Imamopravoznati.org and request the Pro version for free, which allows sending the same request to multiple addresses, as well as delaying the publication of the request during the data collection period.

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