Taiwan's new anti-graft agency under a cloud

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 August, 2010, 12:00am

After more than two decades of debate, Taiwan will soon form a body modelled on Hong Kong's Independent Commission Against Corruption to crack down on graft in the island's civil service.

But without the independent status enjoyed by the ICAC, the future of the agency - part of the Justice Ministry - has been called into question even before its establishment.

Embarrassed by a recent spate of bribery scandals implicating police and judicial officials, President Ma Ying-jeou declared last month that he planned to set up an anti-graft department similar to the ICAC or Singapore's Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau.

'I am determined, very determined, to build a clean government,' Ma said. 'I can't tolerate it if even one civil servant tramples on the law.'

His announcement came just a day after the island's judicial chief, Lai In-jaw, resigned to take responsibility for the detention of three judges and a prosecutor suspected of taking bribes in exchange for the acquittal of a former legislator.

On July 13, more than 100 investigators raided 34 locations and also searched the offices of the High Court. They later detained high court judges Lee Chun-ti, Chen Jung-ho and Tsai Kuang-chih and prosecutor Chiu Mao-jung after hours of questioning. They were accused of accepting bribes while handling a corruption case involving former Kuomintang legislator Her Jyh-huei.

Her had twice been found guilty of accepting bribes in connection with the development of a science park in Miaoli county he formerly administered. He was sentenced to 19 years' jail in 2006 but the sentence was cut to 14 years in 2008 after Her appealed. That prompted another appeal, which led to the high court's abrupt not-guilty verdict in May this year.

Investigators later said that in addition to allegedly accepting bribes, some of the judicial officials had also received sexual entertainment suspected to have been arranged by Her.

Her fled shortly before the raids, apparently after being tipped off.

The scandal ignited a new wave of public criticism of the judicial system, long associated with a lack of transparency and under-the-table dealings.

It also reminded the public of media reports that some police officers were involved in the running of prostitution and gambling rings. The force's image was further dented last month after at least five senior officers were found to have befriended a gang boss who was shot dead by a rival while the officers chatted with him in his office.

Mindful of the grim results of a corruption survey by Hong Kong's Political and Economic Risk Consultancy (PERC) last year, Ma said: 'We must set up a commission against corruption under the Justice Ministry for the important task of eradicating and preventing graft.'

Last year's survey rated Singapore the least corrupt economy in Asia, followed by Hong Kong. PERC ranked Taiwan ninth - one place behind the mainland - among 14 Asian economies plus Australia and the United States, which were included for comparison purposes.

Ma, who had promised in his 2008 presidential campaign to eliminate corruption and improve Taiwan's image, ordered an immediate review of anti-graft actions shortly after the survey was released.

Public disappointment over former president Chen Shui-bian's implication in a series of corruption scandals was one major reason Ma was able to defeat Frank Hsieh Chang-ting, of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, in the presidential election in March 2008.

Taiwan's graft-fighting efforts appear to have improved somewhat in the past year, with PERC's latest survey listing the island as the eighth least-corrupt economy in Asia this year, two places ahead of the mainland.

But the surfacing of the police and judicial scandals in the past two months has spoiled the efforts. It also gave the pro-independence camp ammunition to attack the integrity and graft-busting policies of Ma's government.

The DPP has urged voters at year-end municipal elections to 'vote down the Ma government for betraying the public's trust in Ma's vows to eradicate corruption'.

'Ma Ying-jeou said he would stamp out corruption, and see what we have now - judicial officials implicated in a bribery scandal - and can we still trust him and can we still believe in justice?' DPP chairwoman Dr Tsai Ing-wen said at a recent election campaign rally.

The scandals and the challenge from the opposition camp prompted Ma to finally call for the establishment of the special anti-graft agency.

Ma had proposed the formation of such a body while justice minister, some 20 years ago, but the reluctance of KMT lawmakers to support the proposal and opposition from existing anti-graft agencies, including the Investigation Bureau, stalled its formation.

Opponents insisted that creating such a body would involve huge wastes of manpower and money because its functions would overlap with those of existing agencies.

The Investigation Bureau is charged with busting corrupt practices but there are also ethics units within each government ministry and department which monitor internal graft and illicit activities by civil servants.

Then-justice minister Wang Ching-feng said in February last year that Ma hoped to form a special graft-busting body this year and had instructed her ministry to study its feasibility, despite strong opposition.

'We are stepping up efforts to combine the anti-corruption department of the Investigation Bureau and the civil service ethics departments,' she said.

Wang's successor, Tseng Yung-fu, confirmed that the staff of the new body, which would be formed under the Justice Ministry, would come from the Investigation Bureau and other government ethics units.

'We will select elite members from the Investigation Bureau and other law enforcement and ethics departments to serve in the agency,' he said.

The agency would initially have 200 staff members, about 10 of whom would be prosecutors, Tseng said, adding that agency members would be given the power to investigate cases of government corruption independently. Hong Kong's ICAC has 1,300 staff.

Currently, while agents of the Investigation Bureau are empowered to investigate, officials from the ethnic units can monitor and report suspected cases.

Asked if the new agency's functions would overlap with those of the Investigation Bureau, Tseng said: 'The new agency will serve as yet another firewall, along with the bureau, against official corruption.'

But the DPP questioned the need to establish such an agency. 'The KMT has blocked the proposal more than 173 times since 2000, and in order to keep it from losing the year-end election, Ma ordered the formation of this cheap agency,' said Ker Chien-ming, the DPP's legislative caucus leader.

DPP spokesman Lin Yu-chang said given that the functions of the agency would be the same as those of the Investigation Bureau and the Special Investigation Commission under the Supreme Prosecutors Office, 'I am afraid these agencies would end up in power struggles and fighting with each other for cases'.

The DPP also demanded that the new agency start with investigating accusations that Ma's eldest sister, Ma Yi-nan, was involved in influence peddling for two of her in-laws. She has denied the allegations.

Analysts said without independent status, the corruption body might not be able to work as efficiently and effectively as the agencies in Hong Kong and Singapore.

'If the government really wants to eradicate corruption, it should strengthen legal provisions to ensure the independence of the new agency and prevent it from being abused by political parties,' said Dr Hsu Hui-feng, an associate professor of law at Chinese Culture University.

Analysts said the Hong Kong and Singapore agencies were able to work well because they were set up under the highest level of government and were given absolute power to conduct their probes independently, while being monitored by an independent panel.

Dr Chiang Huang-chih, a law professor at National Taiwan University, said the authorities also needed to quickly pass a so-called sunshine law to allow graft-busters to question officials whose wealth and assets had increased unreasonably.

'In Hong Kong, investigators are empowered to demand officials with unreasonably increased assets explain the increases, but our law here allows investigators to ask such questions only after a civil servant is charged with corruption,' he said.