Fighting corruption – properly
A refreshing bit of news this week, in an awkward kind of way, is that the Bribery and Corruption Commission (The Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption) hitherto in hibernation, has now sprung to life with 23 public officials indicted before the High Court.

For more than two years, this Commission had fallen by the wayside due mainly to some bad drafting of the law. Passed unanimously (though with great effort) through Parliament, the law stipulated that all three Commissioners must be available for indictments to take place.

That gaping loophole allowed one of the super-bureaucrats during President R. Premadasa's tenure to get away with a legal argument propounded by a clever President's Counsel. To compound this farce, a more recent government gave the bureaucrat a special assignment to oversee numerous development contracts, even though the then Finance Secretary kept him on a tight leash.

In the early years of the Commission, its prosecuting arm was riddled with in-fighting. They were investigating each other. In later years the Commission's shortcomings in fighting bribery and corruption have been highlighted ad nauseam. Weak Commissioners, lack of trained staff and most of all, the lack of will on the part of the political leadership of this country to fight this canker in the nation's body politic were all part of the malaise.

Thin majorities in Parliament have contributed to this lack of will on the part of the political leaders. Rogue-politicians have been able to exploit this situation at their will and pleasure. Then, there has been a surfeit of elections that requires big spenders, and most of these financiers are those who have adjusted their books to bankroll as many parties as possible.

It is for this reason that this newspaper has repeatedly said that the biggest bribe-takers in this country are the political parties. They say it's the done thing in all democracies, but in Sri Lanka, while the Elections Commission doles out a princely sum of 50 cents per voter for candidates (depending on their vote bank in a previous election), there are no laws, no controls, no transparency, and no accounting when it comes to collecting the money-sacks. The IOU time comes once the elections are over.

Basically it is not even a case of observing the law in the breach, it's a case of a lawless, free-for-all situation. Those indicted this week, are mainly persons employed in the Police involving the suppression of evidence for offences ranging from narcotics to transporting illegally felled trees. No doubt, they are innocent until proved otherwise.

But are these policemen the only people suppressing crime in this country? What about the politicians themselves? If the Bribery and Corruption Commission wants to win any confidence with the vast majority of the people, it might have to put a minister, past or present, in the dock. It is public knowledge that there are several complaints of bribery and corruption against former and incumbent Cabinet ministers before the Commission.

There are cases even before the normal courts which have gone into a state of suspension because 'big names' are involved. Investigations start, then stall when people with influence are involved. Take the case of the Public Trustee of this country, the public servant bearing that distinguished title who is on Rs. 1 million bail for corruption. Take the case of the men heading the Department of the Registration of Persons, those responsible for a state security task. They are now being investigated for issuing false National Identity Cards for a bribe. The case was unearthed only when a suicide-bomber's bogus NIC (issued by the Department) was found.

There is almost no place for honest businessmen and traders, and the credo seems to be 'if you can't beat 'em, join 'em'. While on the one hand, public opinion is overwhelmingly weighted on the need for action on this front, very little will be achieved unless the three fundamental deficiencies are corrected, i.e., stronger and more dynamic leadership at the Commission's helm; a better trained and equipped staff, and most of all; the will on the part of the political leaders of this country to break the vicious cycle they are embroiled in.

One major shift required is to get the accounting profession (not just the legal and police) engaged in this onerous exercise of cleansing the Augean stables. When the dreaded gangster Al Capone could not be roped in any other way during the prohibition era in US history, it was a conscientious tax accountant who was able to nab him and see him in jail.

The public, quite naturally, is crying out for reform in an area where even foreign donors have expressed serious concern. The political leaders have the option of radical reform or careless complacency. Our bet is that they will continue to find the path of least resistance, the easier way to go.

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