The Executive Yuan yesterday established a task force to study how to deal with alleged irregularities related to the use and reimbursement of public money involving more than 1,000 academics and elected officials, with Premier Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺) instructing Cabinet members to study the issue.
Jiang designated ministers without portfolio Lo Ying-shay (羅瑩雪) and Schive Chi (薛琦) to lead an inter-agency panel to prepare an amendment to the Accounting Act (會計法) after several Cabinet members voiced their concerns at a Cabinet meeting, Executive Yuan spokesperson Cheng Li-wun (鄭麗文) told a press conference.
National Science Council Minister Cyrus Chu (朱敬一) said the Executive Yuan should “actively get involved with the issue to set forth the reasons” it is necessary to decriminalize the involvement of professors and researchers at colleges and academic institutions in the issue, Cheng said.
Minister of Education Chiang Wei-ling (蔣偉寧) seconded the idea, Cheng added.
Hundreds of professors have been indicted for illegally falsifying receipts to account for research grants from the government.
Chu and Chiang have been advocating that professors be pardoned as long as the funds were used for research purposes and not for their personal use, in light of the excessive rigidity of the reimbursement system.
An amendment, which was designed to exempt elected officials and academics involved in such irregularities from being charged, cleared the legislature about 20 minutes before the close of the legislative session on May 31, catching many lawmakers off-guard and sparking a public outcry.
Under the amendment, elected officials involved in the misuse of public funds would not be charged regardless of how the funds were spent, while professors involved in irregularities in reimbursement for research grants would face prosecution if the funds were used for purposes other than their research.
Although the amendment was initiated by lawmakers, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and Jiang both gave their consent.
Had the amendment been promulgated by Ma, jailed former Non-Partisan Solidarity Union lawmaker Yen Ching-piao (顏清標) would have been released.
Yen began serving a three-and-a-half-year sentence in February for using nearly NT$20 million (US$668,500) of taxpayers’ money to visit hostess bars when he was Taichung County Council speaker between 1998 and 2000.
Public discontent over the amendment grew, especially after it was found that the word “teaching [faculty]” was missing, meaning that professors could still face prosecution.
On Thursday last week, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairman Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) apologized for his party’s involvement in pushing the amendment through.
Ma on Friday also offered an apology and instructed the Executive Yuan to issue a reconsideration order for the legislature to correct the amendment.
The Executive Yuan approved the proposal for reconsideration of the amendment at yesterday’s meeting scheduled especially for the purpose.
There were two reasons for the reconsideration proposal, Cheng said.
First, it was against the principle of fairness that professors misappropriating public funds for personal use would be charged, but elected officials would not; second, the omission of “teaching [faculty]” constituted “vagueness” whether professors could be exempted from charges, Cheng said.
Cheng said the task force would prepare an amendment, but the Executive Yuan would not launch an initiative to push it through the legislature.
“It would be a counter-proposal when the legislature launches an amendment,” she said.
In the legislature, party caucus whips yesterday agreed that the proposal would be the first item to be dealt with on Thursday, the first day of a two-week extra session.
After a cross-party negotiation meeting with party caucus whips, Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平) said the legislature is expected to vote in favor of the reconsideration proposal to nullify the amendment.
Asked whether there would be any renewed attempts by lawmakers to revise the Accounting Act, Wang declined to comment.
“Let’s go back to the start first. As for whether the legislature revises the Accounting Act again, it is something to be talked about in the future,” Wang said.
Consensus was reached by party whips yesterday to hold discussions among all legislators on Thursday morning, when the legislative agenda of the extra session is to be determined.
It will be held in the morning before a Procedural Committee meeting at noon and a vote on the Executive Yuan’s veto of the controversial amendment to the Accounting Act in the afternoon.
However, the parties asked the Legislative Research Bureau to study the potential conflict between the Executive Yuan’s veto and the DPP caucus’ proposal for a reconsideration, which has never happened before.
Legislators would also like to know whether legislation can be reconsidered after passing a third reading in the last plenary session and being sent to the Presidential Office for promulgation.
Wang said the Accounting Act “is now back to its status before it was amended” and it would not be necessary for Jiang to report to the legislature again, but Jiang was invited to brief the legislature on Thursday about the 12-year compulsory education policy.
Compulsory education is expected to be among several major issues on the agenda of the extra session, which is likely to also include proposals on the use of nuclear power, the capital gains tax on securities transactions and pension reform.
Separately, Yen Ching-piao issued a statement via his son Yen Kuan-hen (顏寬恒), who was elected to replace him as legislator, saying that he was sorry for the furor caused by the passage of the amendment.
Yen Ching-piao said he would refrain from participating in politics or running for public office once he is released from prison.
The politician, who is also chairman of the Jenn Lann Temple (鎮瀾宮) in Greater Tai-chung’s Dajia District (大甲), one of the nation’s best-known Matsu temples, said he would devote the rest of his life to serving Matsu.