Overhaul of the audit witness system floated

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Overhaul of the audit witness system floated

The ruling and opposition parties started discussing a major change to the tradition of the National Assembly summoning people to audit hearings to improve the efficiency of the system.

According to a civic group that monitors the National Assembly, 31 witnesses who were summoned to the legislature’s audit on state affairs in 2013 wasted time waiting for their turns to be questioned by lawmakers because they were never called to the stand.

The group, Citizens United for Better Society, said 10 out of the 31 witnesses were summoned by the Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs Committee and another seven were summoned by the Security and Public Administration Committee.

Of those 31 witnesses who wasted their time, 14 were senior public servants and another 14 were businessmen. No record, however, was available about which lawmakers had summoned the witnesses.

Lawmakers also agreed that the system of summoning witnesses anonymously has many disadvantages.

“Lawmakers often summon witnesses to the hearings and fail to ask proper questions,” said Rep. Kim Yong-tae of the Saenuri Party, a member of the National Policy Committee. “The lawmakers just yell at them. If the system is changed and the information is made public which lawmaker summoned whom as a witness, the questioning will become more responsible.”

As of now, the ruling and opposition parties’ chief negotiators for each standing committee have the details of the witness lists and which lawmakers summoned them to testify, but do not make the information public. It is a venerable tradition established to stop the lawmakers from becoming the subject of lobbying.

Kim also said the lawmakers’ practice of threatening to summon conglomerate owners as part of a political bargain with rival lawmakers can be stopped when the current witness selection system is changed.

Citizens United for Better Society said the National Assembly is increasingly summoning nonpublic servants as witnesses partly because of the anonymity system. In 2004, only 6.5 nonpublic servants per day were called as witnesses for National Assembly hearings, but the number went up to 16.7 in 2013, it said.

“The names of lawmakers must be made public when they call for witnesses,” said Prof. Kim Hyung-joon of Myongji University. “The negotiation between the ruling and opposition parties to select the witnesses must also be recorded and the transcript should be made public.”

Two bills to improve the system were submitted to the legislature last October, but they didn’t go anywhere.

One of the bills was proposed by Rep. Lee Sang-il of the Saenuri Party. According to his proposal, a lawmaker must provide specific questions for a witness and a witness must submit written answers ahead of a hearing. If the written testimony is satisfactory, the lawmaker can cancel the witness’s appearance.

“When the president of Sungshin Women’s University and its members had a conflict, I sent questions to both sides with a plan to summon them as witnesses,” Lee said. “Then, they provided specific answers. Because their statements were satisfactory, there was no need to summon them.”

On Tuesday, Rep. Kim Jung-hoon, the chief policy maker of the Saenuri Party, once again stressed the need to reform the system.

“Private companies and civilians are not the direct subjects of our audits, but standing committees often try to summon them,” said Kim. “It is necessary to listen to their testimonies to confirm some facts, but there is no need to waste time by summoning a chairman of a large company to ask a simple yes or no question.”

He also told the JoongAng Ilbo that the ruling party’s policy committee was ordered to consider revising the current law governing the witness summoning by the legislature.

Chairman Kim Moo-sung and floor leader Won Yoo-chul supported the idea that the current system should be revised.

The opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) also agreed to the change in principle.

“We agree to the Saenuri Party’s proposal to make public the lawmakers’ names for summoning witnesses,” said Rep. Lee Un-ju, spokeswoman of the NPAD. “It is also necessary to make public the names of lawmakers who oppose selecting some witnesses. The negotiation of witness selection must be recorded and revealed transparently to allow the public to make judgements.”

The NPAD’s chief policy maker, Rep. Choi Jae-cheon, also said the party will accept the Saenuri’s proposal as long as the opposing lawmakers’ names are also made public.

The Saenuri’s chief policy maker, Rep. Kim, said the best way would be recording transcripts of the witness selection negotiations for each standing committee.

It remains to be seen if the two sides will actually change the system, because the Saenuri Party’s goal is stopping the opposition’s reckless calling of witnesses, while the NPAD wants to emphasize the ruling party’s practice of shielding conglomerate owners from testifying in hearings.

BY KIM KYUNG-HEE, SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]
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