Officials behaving badlyIt was deja vu all over again. The trips of nine lawmakers from the Special Committee of Budget and Accounts to Central America and Africa to allegedly study how such paragons of fiscal prudence as Zimbabwe and Costa Rica do their budget appropriations was surprisingly similar to a scandal from six years ago. In May 2007, 21 auditors of state-owned companies went to South America. Nicknamed the Iguazu Falls excursion, the trip prompted a public furor. President Roh Moo-hyun even issued a public apology over the scandal. We still have a vivid memory of it, and you’d think our lawmakers would too, but the same thing happened all over again. Perhaps it’s human nature to resist learning from past mistakes.
First, the lawmakers and the auditors made the same excuse for their junkets. Six years ago, the auditors jetted off to Latin America to “learn about advanced audit systems.” We all know how advanced auditing is in Latin America! The lawmakers said their trips were “to research advanced appropriations systems.”
It’s hard to believe they were going to Central America and Africa to learn anything advanced. It would be more convincing if lawmakers from those countries were coming to Korea to learn something. Of course, they really couldn’t say “vacationing” was the purpose of their trips since the people footing the bill were, well, the people!
Second, the auditors and the lawmakers both picked famous tourist destinations to do their advanced studies. The Iguazu Falls excursion was designed to visit four popular tourist destinations: Santiago in Chile, Rio de Janeiro and the Iguazu Falls in Brazil and Buenos Aires in Argentina.
This time, the lawmakers were split into two groups: One group went to Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa and the second group went to Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama. They were all dream destinations for the average Korean tourist because they’re very distant and costly to get to.
Both the auditors and the lawmakers spent public money for their trips. For the Iguazu Falls excursion, the state-run companies and public offices paid expenses of 8 million won ($7,540) for each auditor. The lawmakers spent a total of 150 million won, and of course, it came from the state purse.
Fourth, they ended up cutting short their foreign junkets after the media exposed their profligacy. Of course, not all came back. In the Iguazu Falls excursion, two came back from Los Angeles after two days. This time, three came back after four days. As criticisms peaked, the auditors and the lawmakers both apologized that they failed to understand how the public would feel and promised that no similar incident will happen again.
The Iguazu Falls excursion ended with the refunding of the auditors’ travel expenses and a Ministry of Planning and Budget warning - without any other punishment. It took just 100 days for the whole scandal to blow over.
Although the president ordered the auditors “sternly punished,” it was an empty threat. The lawmakers probably won’t fare any worse.
There is, however, one thing that is different this time around. One of the lawmakers, the opposition Democratic United Party Representative Choi Jae-sung, had his wife come along on the trip. Choi said his wife’s expenses were paid for by himself.
He also said that during his nine years in the legislature, he particularly avoided going on any long trips and the longest he’d ever taken was a three-day junket. Choi explained that this trip was the longest. He probably feel bitter and thinks the criticisms are unfair.
It’s a wonder that Representative Choi has gotten caught. During last year’s regular audit of the Bank of Korea, Choi fiercely criticized Bank of Korea Governor Kim Choong-soo. At the time, Choi picked on Kim’s overseas trips, which he sometimes took with his wife.
“The bank spent 60 million won to finance your wife going on six overseas trips with you,” Choi said. “Of the six trips, your wife was not formally invited on five.”
Although Kim explained that the spouse was customarily invited for those trips, Choi railed at him saying, “Will you take responsibility if that is proven otherwise?” Kim replied that he would take responsibility.
“Kim doesn’t usually fight back at a lawmaker’s question or criticism, but it was different that day,” a Bank of Korea official recalled. “It was unusual that his face turned red and his voice went up high.”
Did Representative Choi forget all about that day? Or was he thinking, “It’s a romantic love affair if I do it, but it’s adultery if someone else does it?” Unfortunately, that’s just not the case.
He probably thought - just like most leaders in our society - that he wouldn’t be caught. In fact, if it weren’t for the JoongAng Ilbo’s reports, neither the Iguazu Falls excursion nor the latest trips of the lawmakers would have ever been known by the public.
From now on, Choi will probably face criticism from the people in public offices. Senior officials won’t be able to bring their spouses on overseas trips because they would feel uncomfortable, at least for a while. Choi’s reputation will take a bruising for sure.
It’s hard to feel sorry for him, but in fact, there are some simple words of consolation. Representative Choi, you can just wait for some time to pass. Three months will probably be more than enough. After three months, it will all be forgotten as if nothing happened. And that includes this column.
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Yi Jung-jae