Rajpal's Column

4th February 2001

The relative merits of gifts and graft

By Rajpal Abeynayake

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A Sinhala-lobby intellectual (these days they ask to be separately branded) once complained in a newspaper that the English newspapers are "too full of comparisons with foreign situations.''

This column has tended to be home grown, and if that makes old Socrates - hater happy, so be it. Occasionally however, we all need to nod, and it is in this spirit that this comparison is made between the some presidential proclivities of a Sri Lankan President and an American one.

Ex U.S President Bill Clinton accepted a gift of furniture valued at American dollars 7,375, from Denise Rich, the ex-wife of fugitive tycoon Mark Rich. The gift "looks like a quid pro quo'' reported TIME magazine, because Clinton in one of his last acts granted a full Presidential pardon to Mark Rich, one of the world's most wanted swindlers.

Bill and Hilary Clinton also hauled in "dollars 190,000'' worth of gifts, as they were leaving the White House. According to the magazine, some of the gift givers were quoted in NBC as saying they were "not wanting to give Hilary Clinton special farewell presents'', the way a Clinton spokesman had claimed. They had instead been contacted by a Clinton political supporter, to send the "gift registry'' a cheque of $ 5000.

Though the more damaging aspect of the last Clinton scandal is the pardon that he granted a white-collar swindler, what's more telling perhaps is the almost vulgar acceptance of gifts, particularly from those who had been granted political favours.

( Incidentally, the ex President also issued Presidential pardons to four Orthodox Jews who had embezzled $ 40 million in state funds. Clinton commuted their sentences in a Presidential show of grace. It turned out that the Jews secured the votes of an entire Jewish lobby in New York for Hilary Clinton, when she ran for Senator in November 2000.)

Though, for one, the episode once again shatters the myth that America is a country that lays a premium on political accountability, the "gifts for favours'' scandal is familiar.

The President's fund has not been properly audited in this country, but there have been lingering questions about the gifts that have accrued to the President and whether there is proper accountability in this regard.

As for Presidential pardons here, "pardons'' have been granted by Presidents for crooks, sometimes by direct intervention with investigating officers. Bill Clinton, it appears, used the loopholes that were available to him in the American system, to proffer pardons that were obviously unjust. He was, for instance, not legally required to refer back to the Justice Department regarding pardons for fugitives from the law, such as Mark Rich.

But, the transparency of the system on the other hand, also ensured that the Clintons have ended up with considerable egg on their faces. The so called gifts registry, for example, requires the President to keep an account of the gifts that accrue to him or his family. This account is to be produced subsequently for public scrutiny.

One aspect of the scandal is that all this transparency did not stop the Clintons from accepting the gifts. It means that politicians will be corrupt, whenever they are confident that public wrath will not turn entirely against them if "good times prevail.'' ( Clinton is widely believed to have presided over the most prolonged economic boom of the century.)

Politicians supposed to be accountable can be thick, and if so, it can be imagined what gross levels of corruption that politicians without proper accountability can get upto. On the example of the gifts, it is clear that even the checks and balances that prevail in the US system do not operate here in Sri Lanka.

If the US President somehow bypassed the "gifts registry'', and did not declare some of the gifts he received (which he may have done) and then got caught, there would have been no easy reprieve for him. The situation here is different. The President's fund can go un-audited. Gifts to the President can go unaccounted for.

Perhaps the crass crookedness of Bill Clinton in issuing a reprieve for one of the biggest white collar swindlers of all time, will now embolden the top rung VIPs of this country and similar countries, to be more corrupt than they already are.

The West, which generally exports lessons to the developing world on political accountability corruption and graft via those favourite institutions, the World Bank and the IMF, is not lily white. On the contrary, Clinton has shown that American Presidents can be as brazen, if not as corrupt as Presidents and politicians back here.

Clinton's gifts and pardon scandal probably shows more than anything else that politicians are increasingly beginning to care less. Besides, pardoning a swindler because his ex-wife was a political fundraiser, is a serious act of corruption, but it is not being seen as such even though the American media seems to be displeased with Clinton. But, such feelings of discord, the media itself seems to suggest, will soon pass.

That's the political culture in the US, and the political culture here is about as brazen, and pardons are generally acquired over the telephone, without much hoopla and without having to lift a pen either.

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