Wed, Aug 16, 2006 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Transparency will quell suspicions

Returning to Taiwan with documents she claims are proof of embezzlement by the first family, Ligi Lee (李慧芬), a Taiwanese fashion designer based in Australia, has attracted frenzied media coverage over the past few days and put the operation of the Presidential Office's state affairs fund under the spotlight. Meanwhile, a group of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) legislators have accused Taipei City Mayor and Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Chairman Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) of embezzling the special allowance that the city government provides him. They have demanded that his use of these funds be scrutinized immediately.

It is unlikely that either President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) or Ma have enriched themselves with these funds. The Presidential Office's state affairs fund totaled NT$60 million (US$1.8 million) per year when the KMT was in power. When Chen came to power in 2000, he halved his pay as president and capped the state affairs fund at NT$35 million per year. Since entering politics, Ma has established a reputation for financial fastidiousness and is an unlikely embezzler.

However, the procedures governing the use and auditing of these funds are unreasonable. In the past, both the Presidential Office and the city government operated on the understanding that only half of all disbursements from these funds needed to be verified with receipts. In response to the current controversy, the Ministry of Audit has demanded that all disbursements for the state affairs fund be verified with receipts. The Presidential Office has now accused the Ministry of Audit of setting a double standard to create difficulties for the office.

To clarify his role in the scandal, Chen invited Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平) and some DPP lawmakers to the Presidential Office to explain that the money was used for confidential diplomatic purposes; but this is only a partial explanation and in any case was only addressed to a select few. It therefore has had little impact on public perceptions.

The Presidential Office needs to clarify to the public the operation of the state affairs fund, show prosecutors that there was no illegality and check to see whether current procedures violate Ministry of Audit practices. Only in this way can the president win back the public's trust. Even if we allow that the money was used for state purposes, the fact that verification is based on large numbers of receipts collected by the first family from associates clearly smacks of fraud, and is totally inappropriate. Therefore, a review of the auditing procedure should be considered.

In Ma's case, he said that all the disbursements from the "special allowance" could be verified, and that the surplus was donated to charitable organizations. Although half the amount of the special allowance does not need to be verified, the fact that the money was placed in a personal savings account -- even if not illegal -- is enough to spark suspicion.

Although nominally the state affairs and special allowance funds are different, they are in essence very similar. The use of such funds is not the concern of Chen and Ma only, but of numerous government officials.

Now that the state affairs fund has become the subject of public debate, the government should establish rules clearly laying down the procedure for disbursements from these funds, giving the use of these funds a clear legal basis. Only then will we avoid having the president involved in an unsightly scramble to collect receipts, purchase gift vouchers and other dodges, and avoid suspicion being directed at Ma for diverting government money to private ends.

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