Geneva expenses scandal sparks calls for more transparency

Geneva council members are under fire for excessive expense claims, including Guillaume Barazzone (left) who says he will pay back some of the money. Keystone

A highly critical audit report has denounced members of the Geneva city council for claiming exorbitant amounts for expenses, such as champagne, taxis and telephone bills. 

This content was published on November 2, 2018 - 11:24

The audit office report published on Thursday criticised “excesses” in the professional expense claims of some councillors, opacity in the system and uncooperative behaviour. It also said the majority were not setting a good example. 

Among the five council officials, environment councillor Guillaume Barazzone claimed CHF42,000 ($42,000) in expenses in 2017, including more than CHF17,000 in mobile phone expenses. He admitted “involuntary mistakes”, such as mixing up private and public credit cards, and on Thursday announced he had reimbursed thousands of francs claimed since 2012. 

Overall, the municipal council said it had taken on board most of the audit report’s recommendations and had introduced new stricter rules for claiming expenses. 

This report comes after a number of other affairs that have raised questions about the financial transparency of politicians and officials. The head of the Geneva cantonal government Pierre Maudet is currently under investigation by the Geneva Attorney General’s Office over a trip to Abu Dhabi in November 2017 to attend a Formula 1 Grand Prix, allegedly funded by that country’s crown prince to the tune of several tens of thousands of Swiss francs. The minister has denied any conflict of interest. 

+ Read more about the Maudet allegations

Barazzone’s visit to the same Abu Dhabi Grand Prix last year is also being investigated separately by the Geneva prosecutor’s office. The councillor argues that his trip was strictly private.  

Meanwhile, in neighbouring canton Vaud, Social Democrat Senator Geraldine Savary this week admitted that she and her running mate Luc Recordon, from the Green Party, had accepted several thousand francs in election campaign funds from the billionaire Frederik Paulsen, president of the pharma company Ferring. Savary defended saying transparency and political funding rules had been respected for the donation, which was purely "amicable".

Reacting to the Geneva expenses revelations, the French-speaking newspaper Le Temps asked in an editorial if the politicians were “driven by greed”. It says they are not all tainted, but “it is time that the demand for more transparency be translated into laws and rules, notably on political party funding”. 

An editorial in the Tribune de Genève newspaper says that “to limit the damage to their image, the politicians must show rapidly that they have mended their ways. Half-measures like Pierre Maudet’s semi-admissions are no longer acceptable”. 

These events could well influence discussions surrounding an initiative currently before the federal parliament aimed at introducing more transparency in political parties in Bern. If the initiative were to be accepted by voters, parties would have to publish the origin of all donations over CHF10,000. In addition, individuals and committees who donate more than CHF100,000 to a campaign – or more than CHF10,000 per person – would have to declare the total amount they have donated and where it all came from. 

Switzerland is regularly reprimanded by the Council of Europe for opaque political party funding. Switzerland is the only member of the Council of Europe Group of States against Corruption (Greco) that has not introduced legislation at national level with rules on transparency.

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