Geneva minister under pressure as corruption scandal grows

Gérard Ramseyer could be on the way out Keystone Archive

A corruption scandal, in which up to SFr3 million was embezzled by an employee of Geneva's cantonal Bankruptcy Office, has split the local government and is threatening to claim the scalp of the minister in charge.

This content was published on July 18, 2001 minutes

With one former employee already charged with fraud and an official enquiry in the pipeline, the minister responsible, Gérard Ramseyer, has effectively been placed under supervision by his ministerial colleagues and is under growing pressure to stand down at the next cantonal elections, in November.

Many already believe Ramseyer, who has been minister for police and justice for the past eight years, is living on borrowed time. Key members of his party, the centre-right Radicals, say it is possible that he will not be asked to be a candidate for a ministerial post again.

The president of the Radicals in Geneva, Floriane Ermacora, told swissinfo that, with a report commissioned by the cantonal government still being prepared, it was too early to state an official position. Nevertheless, she says "it is time to declare our concern about this affair".

"If these reports reveal that Gérard Ramseyer is personally or legally implicated, we will clearly be forced to take a very difficult decision," Ermacora says.

She added that Ramseyer was "clever and responsible enough to propose such a solution", but that he had assured her he would not be implicated.

Ramseyer's fate could well be sealed in two weeks' time when the cantonal finance inspectors (ICF) issue what is expected to be a damning report on the internal workings of the Bankruptcy Office.

Already investigators have found evidence of false bank accounts in which almost SFr8 million had been deposited. It is believed this money may have been used to pay temporary staff.

In addition, the cantonal government has set up a special commission which is charged with coming up with mechanisms to ensure this kind of thing cannot happen in future.

One former employee of the Bankruptcy Office is already in prison. Arrested on July 6, he is charged with aggravated abuse of trust, which carries a maximum sentence of ten years in prison, and forging documents.

This 44-year-old resident of Geneva admits to having misappropriated SFr2 million over a period of ten years. Prosecutors believe the figure could be as high as SFr3.5 million, are trying to find out what may have happened to the cash.

"Our inquiries have only just begun," a prosecutor was quoted as saying.

But this has become more than just a matter of corruption by a middle-ranking government employee. The scale of the affair has highlighted an inadequate system of controls in a department handling large sums of money, as well as revealing the lengths to which Ramseyer's department went to prevent investigators uncovering the extent of the problem.

Members of the cantonal parliament's management inspection commission have revealed that questions were raised about irregularities at the Bankruptcy Office as early as 1996. Those concerns were reiterated in subsequent reports, but Ramseyer consistently refused to follow them up.

The affair has led to divisions within the cantonal government, not least between Ramseyer and Micheline Calmy-Rey, the finance minister, whose inspectors are drawing up the report due out in about two weeks' time.

Ramseyer has questioned the competence and mandate of the investigators. Calmy-Rey has responded by saying that it is up to heads of department, that is, Ramseyer, to ensure that adequate mechanisms are in place to prevent irregularities. She has complained about a "lack of transparency and visibility" in the Bankruptcy Office.

"It's not just Mr Ramseyer that has been tarnished by this affair. It reflects badly on political life in Geneva," Floriane Ermacora says.

"It's very harmful that two ministers should conduct their arguments through the press and not face to face. It's very regrettable, because until now, it has been a team that has functioned well for the past three and a half years," she told swissinfo.

This high-profile case is just one of a number of serious accusations that have been levelled against the office. Others include bullying, the use of illegal workers, unqualified staff being placed in key positions, cronyism, and unorthodox timekeeping.

Similarly, the Bankruptcy Office affair is not the only scandal to have tainted Ramseyer in recent weeks. His unquestioning support for the police over their handling of the death of a drug-user's daughter, who died while her mother was in custody, has also prompted calls for his resignation.

by Roy Probert

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