President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) yesterday presided over a rare press conference on a single issue, as opposed to the usual scene in which a Presidential Office spokesman briefs the media.
By taking the podium himself at the Presidential Office’s press room, Ma wanted to send out the message that he took the subject — corruption — seriously, as well as to reinforce his image as a clean-cut politician with high moral standards.
Action speaks louder than words, however, and it was ironic to see Ma, with a solemn face, expressing regret over the nation’s deteriorating standing on corruption, saying the dismal performance was because of the former Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration and vowing to spare no effort in stamping out graft. This, despite Ma’s own party passing a watered-down version of an amendment to an anti-corruption law just a few days ago.
The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT)-controlled legislature passed an amendment to the Act on the Punishment of Corruption (貪污治罪條例) on Friday. It requires public functionaries found guilty of corruption to explain the source of their wealth if the value of their or their children’s assets increased in the three years following the crime and exceeded the total they declared under the Public Functionary Disclosure Act (公職人員財產申報法). Violators face jail terms of up to three years, or a fine of no more than the value of the assets of undeclared origin, or both, if they cannot account for the assets in their possession. Failure to explain the origin of the assets would lead to a presumption of corruption, under which the property could be seized or confiscated. The amended law will not be applied retroactively.
The KMT caucus praised the amendment as a “sunshine” measure, while the Presidential Office said it was a “milestone” in the fight against corruption.
Closer examination, however, reveals legislation that lacks any teeth when it comes to rooting out corruption. It is pointless to demand those convicted of corruption to account for their assets when they would have been automatically placed under judicial investigation anyway.
So if a corrupt public official is shrewd enough to avoid being prosecuted, what can the Act on the Punishment of Corruption do about it? The amendment only covers those convicted and their children who haven’t reached adulthood, so what happens if officials are sly enough to keep dirty money in the accounts of their grown-up children or other relatives?
And why the non-retroactivity clause? Is it the KMT’s way of covering up for those who may have been corrupt under its watch, but haven’t been caught?
Given the maximum three-year prison sentence, the amendment could be dismissed as an acceptable risk by corrupt officials.
If the Ma government is serious about stamping out corruption, it would choose to adopt a stricter version, such as the amendment proposed by the DPP caucus, which retroactively calls for all civil servants to declare their assets under the Public Functionary Disclosure Act and not just those found guilty of corruption.
Once campaigning starts in the run-up to the year-end elections, Ma and the KMT will likely sell the amendment as a “milestone” bill, when in fact it acts as a millstone around the neck of clean government.
In light of recent criticism of the judiciary, which has come under fire for prosecuting mostly pan-green officials for corruption, the KMT’s “sunshine” amendment is deeply disappointing.