Sun, Nov 19, 2006 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Abolish special allowance funds

The controversies surrounding Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou's (馬英九) use of his special allowance fund reveals that Taiwan has fundamental problems with the system of expense funds used by government officials.

In light of the series of alleged scandals implicating leaders including Ma and President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), it is high time to step back and examine the issue and find a solution.

To begin with, the rules and regulations regarding the use of these special-purpose funds are written ambiguously and riddled with loopholes.

One example is Ma's practice of directly wiring half of his NT$340,000 (US$10,327) monthly mayoral special allowance -- NT$170,000 -- into his personal bank account.

According to the Taipei City Government, this practice is not illegal or prohibited, and is thus perfectly acceptable.

Perhaps the city is right in stating that there are no explicit regulations or rules banning the practice. However, it is necessary to step back and examine the issue from the standpoint of the original purpose of the allowance.

The special allowance fund is supposed to be used for expenses incurred while performing mayoral duties. It is not intended to subsidize a mayor's wages. From a legal standpoint, once the money is wired into the Taipei mayor's account, it becomes his or her personal responsibility. No one else can make use of the fund without the mayor's approval.

Thus, even if Ma faithfully used the money for its intended purpose, because he has co-mingled the fund with his personal account, it is difficult to establish whether he was using his own money or the special fund to pay for his own expenses.

This explains why in many other countries, regulations often explicitly prohibit the co-mingling of public and personal funds.

Another issue centers on whether Ma should be able to keep the unspent portion of the special allowance fund, and again, there are no explicit regulations governing this practice.

However, it is almost unthinkable that this silence should be interpreted as allowing Ma -- or any other government official -- to pocket the left-over money, which is supposed to be spent for job-related purposes and not for personal use. It is truly puzzling why the existing regulations are silent on such important matters.

Finally, there is the alleged use by Ma's aides of "borrowed receipts" to submit reimbursement claims from the other half of his special allowance. If these allegations were substantiated, it would constitute a clear case of forgery.

The borrowed receipts reportedly came from a wide variety of sources, including members of Ma's office who apparently "contributed" their own receipts in a rather casual manner. This is comparable with the way in which receipts were collected and borrowed from a wide variety of sources to claim reimbursement from Chen's "state affairs fund," -- a case that led to the indictment of first lady Wu Shu-jen (吳淑珍) and three presidential aides.

Unfortunately, Ma and Chen's controversial use of such funds are not isolated and random.

A good portion, if not the majority, of Taiwan's officials would likely have difficulty in proving they used special expense funds for the purpose designated.

Anyone who has ever worked for the government or semi-governmental agency should know that the practice of borrowing receipts for reimbursement is a fairly common practice.

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