Thursday, February 6, 2014

Reflections on corruption...and how it might be restrained with external, independent, objective judicial oversight

Had the chance earlier today to listen to a talk show, NPR's On Point with Tom Ashbrook, when the guest was former Secretary of the Treasury, and former President of Harvard, Larry Summers. Of course the topic was what to do to get the American economy growing again, at a rate that would absorb many of the millions of both under-employed and unemployed in that country.
Having ruled out both doing nothing and cutting spending while people are living in often desperate conditions, Summers turned to his favourite "homily"...."If when interest rates are the lowest they have been in decades, and airports like JFK in New York are falling apart, and labour is grasping for work....if this is not the time to spend on infrastructure, then when would that time be?" While he attempted to remain both polite and professional in his disdain for the "high-jacking" of the political argument, in favour of spending cuts by the Republicans in Congress, Summers nevertheless also pointed to a stash of cash (some $3 trillion by his estimates) being locked up by corporations for what he saw as two reasons: first, tax laws permit them to avoid tax by stashing millions if not billions out of the country, so that they do not pay tax on those dollars, and second, corporations produce supply when there is demand, and as demand is low, consequently production is concomitantly low, requiring fewer workers. He also favours a hike in the minimum wage, so that there will be more competition among employers for workers.
And then, there was a listened who called in, a former member of the U.S. military, who referenced his normal distaste for anything Larry Summers says, but agrees with him on the need to invest in infrastructure. However, he is very worried that such investment would inevitably lead to corruption, graft, pay-offs and a waste of those dollars, many of them supporting the crony-capitalism that we have heard so much about in the construction of the Sochi Olympics infrastructure. And, immediately upon listening to this caller, my little mind shifted to the spate of reports out of the European Union, this week, that there is an estimated $1.3 billion in corruption over election expenses, pay-offs, and the like among all of the 28 country members of the EU. Bringing the issue to the front pages is the resignation of the advisor to Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany who wishes to transition into a plum job with a German rail company, intimately entwined with the Merkel administration. And while there are some rules about how long a political serf has to wait after leaving such a post before joining a private company to prevent the appearance of a conflict of interest, and also to preserve public confidence in the political process by restricting its "connections" with people of power and former agents of government.
Lobbying, too, is another location for politicians who have been put out to pasture, either by their voters or perhaps by their families or even their own loss of appetite for the political shenanigans that are required of an elected office-holder. And here, too, there are a few rules about abstention for one or two years before slurping at that privately funded trough, in order to produce legislation that favours the clients' interests, or blocks legislation that would impeded the pursuit of profit of those clients' companies. However, there is really a revolving door between elected politicians and the lobbyist "profession" so rapidly revolving that no one can really keep track of the multiple transitions from one to the other theatre...really the same theatre, just a different "hat" to wear, so to speak.
In the municipal field of government, we have all heard of developers padding the pockets of municipal council members in order to secure passage of a zoning application. And, while that may be considered "small potatoes" in comparison with the billions documented in the EU report, the behaviour is precisely the same, the motives are the same and only the dollar amounts are different.
Governments, in too many countries, are in danger of sacrificing the "public interest" on the altar of the greedy pursuit of the golden parachute, at the public expense. Put another way, politicians run the risk, first of being found out, and then of having to deny their pay-offs, and then, tragically of having to defend themselves in court, should it ever get that far.*
We are witnessing a trickle not yet a trend, toward municipal governments seeking an Ethics Officer, in order to keep the municipal politicians in the middle of the road, in the hope that should one of their members fall into the ditch of corruption, that fall will not taint all other members of that council. Needless to say, if any government is directly responsible for the oversight of its own members, that oversight will be minimal and loose, at best and tokenism at worst. Watch carefully the work of any of the professional "colleges" conduct oversight of their members, and ask yourself if the job would not be better carried out by a completely independent and impartial judicial body.
Ask yourself similarly, if you would fully place your trust in a government which has written rules for the behaviour of its members, and then appointed a few of its own members to conduct that oversight, and then just imagine the loop-holes that those experienced and collegial and anxious members of that committee could and would find to defer, avoid, derail and even to sabotage their investigation.
Is it time for governments in the west to look differently at this issue and for the public to demand that, for example, the RCMP no longer have the power to investigate its own members, or the political class no longer retain the power and the legislation to investigate their own members, and that all professions and all governments relinquish the option to provide oversight for their own to a judicial body, appointed in a manner similar to the appointment of provincial courts, federal courts and even the Supreme Court of the land. Of course, such a proposal would require more independent politicians to render the appointment process free of political interference, to the degree that is possible, and also, it would require of those appointees a level of detachment, objectivity and ethical discipline perhaps even higher than that of the court appointees.
But if public doubt over infrastructure spending, for example, is a legitimate concern, and we certainly believe that it is, and if examples of corruption from the misuse of public funds, when the economies of many countries cannot afford such corruption, then is it not incumbent on the political class to find news ways to prevent abuse by all groups, in order to restore public confidence in our political and professional institutions.
Is the United Nations also accusing the Vatican of systematic corruption in the church rules and practices that have permitted the rate of both paedophilia and its cover-up? Is the Vatican also investigating its own evidence of corruption in the Vatican Bank, as demonstrated in the recent removal of one of the officers of that institution? And is there evidence of corruption in all public and even not-so-public institutions whenever and wherever human activity is being conducted and reported?
And, if so, are we not all responsible for providing the best oversight, the fairest due process and the most fair judgements of the contributions of individuals and groups to what seems to be a shared file?

*Interestingly, in the U.S. Congress, if a member who is under an ethics investigation by a committee of his colleagues, and resigns his/her seat, that investigation ceases immediately.

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