Grants in Brčko to Friends and Voters

Friday November 29th, 2019
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Doling out grants to non-governmental organizations has become a lucrative business for their founders and local politicians in Brčko District. Politicians buy votes in this way, while their friends from associations spend money without oversight.

 

By The Center for Investigative Reporting

The doors to Inclusion Association from Gornji Rahić near Brčko have been closed for months. The abandoned two-story building had been a day-care center where 20 some persons with developmental disabilities used to come. All that is left are scattered shoes in the corridor and drawings and photographs on the walls.

“From this year on we have closed because we have no more funds,” said Fehim Halilović, founder of the organization that stayed afloat for more than 15 years with international donations. He tried in vain for years to get funds from Brčko authorities then gave up.

“I think that this has to go via a party,” he said.

New associations are springing up in Brčko and there’s no shortage of money for them. Lawmakers in the District’s Assembly doled out more than 9 million KM to them over the past two years without any checks and balances, according to an investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting in Sarajevo (CIN). They gave to friends and party colleagues and they don’t hide they get votes from them during elections.

“That’s it. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours – support,” said Esed Kadrić, the chairman of the Assembly.

The associations’ representatives squandered taxpayer money – on themselves and their friends and to buy expensive furniture and equipment. They also did not follow regulations when submitting bills to justify spending and they got away with it because no government institution in the Brčko District was tasked with oversight of this expenditure..

Zgrada Savska

Five associations are registered on this building’s address. In 2019, they received a total of 157,000 in taxpayer money. Over the several past months, CIN reporters visited the building on several occasions without meeting anyone. (Photo: CIN)

Go Along to Get Along Approach

There is a stinky building in Savska 4, 15 kilometers from the Inclusion, whose corridor is strewn with garbage. It awaits five associations that should be housed there – Brčko taxpayers are financing this year’s work with nearly 160,000 KM. CIN reporters spent several months tracking their representatives who are trying to stay out of the limelight.

Most of the money they got came from Ćazim Dačaj, independent lawmaker in the Brčko District’s assembly. In the past two years, he doled out more than 650,000 KM to the associations.

“I have not been following those associations, but I’ve always been aware of their progress, of being active,” said Dačaj.

Half of them were founded only several months before he gave them money. There’s no information about their activities and they cannot be found at their registered address.

The Law on the Budget and the Assembly’s Rules of Procedure make it possible for Dačaj and his peers to dole out money. Every year, legislators have an opportunity to create budgets by having a discretion to dole out 11 million KM as they see fit. They do this via amendments. Nearly half of this they give to the associations, while they use the other half for capital projects, religious buildings and local community. On average, every legislator who belongs to the ruling majority may disburse between 200,000 KM and 600,000 KM per a year.

Ćazim Dačaj

Independent legislator in Brčko District Assembly, Ćazim Dačaj, said that everywhere in the world one has to win voters somehow – either with money or with the gift of the gab. (Photo: CIN)

“Transparency is very low there – no public call for applications; no criteria, no rules,” said independent lawmaker Tomislav Stjepanović who doled out 106,000 KM to associations this year. “Every one of us legislators is left to decide for himself whether to choose an honest path among a too wide range of possibilities.”

The president of the Assembly’s budget committee, Halil Ljuca, said that practice was introduced long time ago because it was impossible to get on the same page all those different parties that make up the government in order for the budget to be passed.

“These are political concessions. This is how it’s done in order to pass the budget,” said Ljuca. “We need that hand (as in ‘show of hands’). That’s the whole story.”

CIN reporters were present at the Assembly’s session when legislators voted for this year’s amendments. The process lasted less than 10 minutes because legislators voted into law thousands of amendments without reading and discussion. After the Assembly approves grants, the cabinet wires the money to the associations. The associations’ main responsibility is to provide founding documents and a statement that they submitted paperwork to justify the spending of earlier grants in case they received them.

“As the Assembly, they did not take any obligations to have some such criteria, we are just their extended hand,” said Pero Gudeljević, head of the government’s Department for Industrial Development, Sport and Culture. “Who are we to stop the budget’s execution? We have no influence over those funds.”

Legislators say that associations reach out to them. In turn, legislators decide based on personal feelings, emotions and sympathies. Hence, they often finance associations of their friends and party peers as well as of those who may earn them votes.

“Of course, we are politicians,” said Ljuca. Dačaj agrees. As a representative of an ethnic minority he joined the Assembly with 384 votes. He told reporters that he got 100-odd votes thanks to amendments.

“When I take these amendments to read, I pick what I find interesting – this association, that association – these grants serve a purpose,” said Dačaj. “Zovik association can send me one – those are Croats—what has that got to do with me when I received not a single vote from them in my life, do you dig me?”

According to people CIN reporters have talked to, some legislators are not only motivated with votes to dole out grants, but they also kept some of money. Lawmakers deny this, but four associations’ representatives said that they were offered to give back some of the money to their patrons. Two declined to do it, but did not reveal the names. The other two agreed in the past and were going to do it again this year, but did not want to speak more about it.

The Brčko Prosecutor’s Office is conducting several investigations about the misuse of grants to citizens’ associations, but declined to comment.

Sead Zahirović

Sead Zahirović founded two associations. One falsely claimed expenses for money it received from the budget. He is connected to another five associations that received a combined amount of over 330,000 KM in taxpayer funds. (Photo: CIN)

Doling Out Grants to Friends

Apart from legislators, some representatives of Brčko associations have profited from grants. There are 641 associations in the town of 83,000 inhabitants. It takes three persons and a 200 KM court stamp to set up an association. The Assembly chairman Kadrić said that the associations are proliferating and connects this to grants.

“The three of us – myself, you and your cameraman can set up an association in Brčko today and may knock on a politician’s door the very next day,” said Kadrić. “Depends who’s got what political office and we may come to arrange some deals.”

Sead Zahirović is a founder of two associations – Brčko Democratic Forum and Zenan Foundation. In the past two years, he knocked on the doors of his old friend Dačaj who gave him 81,000 KM. CIN reporters found that Zahirović misrepresented receipts for last year’s grant – he submitted the same fuel receipts twice.

“Sead is my buddy!”, said Dačaj. “I don’ know what he does behind my back.”

Zahirović rents space in Savska 4 to the associations Sector, Colors and Power. The last two were founded at the end of last year and got right away on the list of those competing for public funds. No one knows what they do or what activities they have – their founders did not want to speak about it either.

Sektor and Zenan have been around since 2017, but there is no available information about their work. These associations are connected beyond the same address. They have swapped amongst themselves and some friends 50,000 KM of taxpayer money. Sector’s president Aleksandar Gluhović got a salary from Zenan, while at the same time Sector paid Zahirović for the same job – financial manager. Several of their friends did the same work.

Apart from this, Gluhović paid Zahirović for office space and services of Brčko Democratic Forum and gave a scholarship to his daughter. Zahirović returned the favor by hiring Sector’s founders in his association. This was not enough to justify all the money they had received. That’s why they submitted the same receipts to justify gasoline, discretionary spending and other costs of both organizations, on more occasions than one. In this way they misappropriated at least 3,000 KM.

“I’m only accountable to those who give me money,” said Gluhović. “If you give me 50,000 KM, I will submit 50,000 (worth of receipts) to you – you stamp here and undersign.”

The same fuel receipts in the amount of nearly 500 KM have showed up in the expenditure records for a grant to The Center of Democracy, another association whose work is also shrouded in mystery. It is run by Edin Ražanica, a co-founder of Brčko Democratic Forum and a friend of Zahirović. He has spent nearly 9,000 KM for his honorarium and on the rent of his own house.

Zahirović and Ražanica seem to appear in other places too. They crop up in the report on the expenditures of the funds of the association Krijes Creative Center because they took together 11,000 KM for journalism workshops and visits to book fairs in Belgrade and Sarajevo. Last year Krijes received a 25,000 KM grant. The association’s president Sanja Stanić does not know how and she said that Zahirović took care of everything.

Zahirović and Ražanica have met on several occasions with CIN reporters who faced them with details about controversial spending, but the pair refused to talk about it.

Adnan Imamović

Adnan Imamović liked spending time in the Inclusion Association where he was surrounded with numerous friends. The association closed down for lack of funds. (Photo: CIN)

Public Money for Family Firms

Money swapped hands also between the associations The Athlete and the Center for Culture and Tourism. Alen Mujkić and Alma Kajević are in one, while Kajević and Mujkić’s wife Aleksandra are in another. Last year, they received 185,000 KM, and more than one quarter of that money went to firms headed by Mujkić, and to a firm of Danilo Varcaković, the third founder of the Center for Culture and Tourism.

“We neither have jurisdiction nor can we check in some way if a receipt is true or not,” said Gudeljević. Officials from the Department for Administrative Affairs, Financial Bureau and Audit Office echoed his words.

Lawmakers in the Brčko District’s Assembly talk about ways and motives for disbursing taxpayer money.

They have spent around 67,000 KM to buy LED screens and sound systems; on associates without job description; and have submitted the same receipts twice to justify 4,000 KM spending. This year they got another 144,000 KM for operating costs and procurement of equipment.

The Center for Culture and Tourism is located in Alma Kajević’s house and according to its web page, it specializes in the promotion and advancement of Brčko’s culture and tourism. In the previous years, the Center organized several events.

Some of those events as well as free swimming school was organized by the Athlete association. It is supposed to be located in the Brka suburb, but reporters were unable to track it down. No house is numbered in this neighborhood with over 700 families. Reporters learned that local post officers take letters to a café owned by Mujkić family. However, the café employees were unable to point to the association’s whereabouts because they’d never heard of it.

No one pays much attention to receipts that testify about the expenditure worth hundreds of thousands KM of taxpayer money. While analyzing reports about the grant expenditures, CIN reporters soon detected fraud. Government officials say that they are aware of this but claim that they cannot do anything about it.

“We neither have jurisdiction nor can we check in some way if a receipt is true or not,” said Gudeljević. Officials from the Department for Administrative Affairs, Financial Bureau and Audit Office echoed his words.

Alija Denjagić

Over two years, the District legislator Alija Denjagić doled out more than 620,000 KM to associations. He did not want to discuss the matter and instead insulted CIN reporters and threatened them. (Photo: CIN)

It is clear from a report on the grant spending that the associations were squandering public money. Among them is the United Minority Groups (UMG) but reporters were unable to get hold of its president Enida Osmanović who blocked the calls.

She paid herself more than 10.000 KM from a grant to represent the association and rent her own car. Even though up to 50 liters of fuel can be pumped into her little car, Osmanović used receipts showing that she had tanked in 60, 70 and even nearly 80 liters to justify her expenditure.

The organization’s work supports independent legislator and a representative of Turkish national minority Alija Denjagić. His close friends have founded it and his former wife worked there too. A landline that the UMG is using belonged to Denjagić, and he named also his wi-fi after them – Alija Denjagić UMG. He did not want to speak about his connections to the organization.

“Those who gave you a tip, you interview them,” Denjagić said. He also insulted CIN reporters and threatened them.

Over two years, UMG received 151,000 KM. Little is known about their work because the organization reported no activities in its report. Office with its luxury furniture that taxpayers paid 15,000 is under lock and key at all times, while no one answers phones whose unpaid bills amount to more than 7,800 KM.

Meanwhile, the associations like Inclusion are closing down. Fehim Halilović recalls how he bought second-hand furniture or got some as donations from private firms. Most of his colleagues were volunteers. He was sad that the authorities did not recognize his efforts, but he was not angry at anyone.

Former beneficiaries of the day-care center also pine for it. One of them Adnan Imamović now whiles his days along a dusty road in front of his uncle’s store in Gornji Rahić, instead of hanging out with his friends in the day-care center. When asked why he was not frequenting Inclusion any more, this 28-year old with developmental disabilities curtly answered: “No money.”

 

Infografika

 

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The Center for Investigative Reporting in Sarajevo (CIN) work is available for free to all organizations that credit CIN as their source and link to www.cin.ba.

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