Anticorruption law threatens a lot of confusion

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Anticorruption law threatens a lot of confusion

With only two months before a sweeping new graft act takes effect, concerns are high that the anticorruption watchdog and law enforcement authorities are not ready to implement the controversial law.

After years of debate, the National Assembly passed a tough anti-graft bill in March 2015, despite worries about its vagueness and scope. The Improper Solicitation and Graft Act, often referred to as the Kim Young-ran law after the former head of the anticorruption commission who authored the initial draft, is scheduled to take effect Sept. 28, 2016.

The Anticorruption and Civil Rights Commission said Wednesday that it created a taskforce to study all possible cases and follow-up measures that will be needed. The commission issued an explanatory booklet about the new law last week and will publish a book detailing 100 ambiguous case studies next month.

The legitimacy of the law is also being challenged. The Constitutional Court will rule on four petitions challenging its constitutionality today. The ruling will be made at 2 p.m. after months of deliberations.

In May, the commission announced an enforcement plan for the law, providing specific guidelines. But confusion still surrounds how the law will be implemented.

The commission, which oversees all government offices’ implementation of the law, will create a new department specializing in handling reports of possible violations of the law. As of now, five officials are assigned to the department from the Interior Ministry, and more will be recruited internally once the law takes effect.

“We believe there will be a flood of reports at the early stage of the implementation, so we are making preparations,” said a commission official. “But we have a difficulty in increasing the necessary manpower.”

The commission repeatedly asked the government to assign more people but was rejected. “We are worried about chaos,” the official said.

Chaos is also feared at more than 1,400 offices of local and central governments as well as state-run institutes. Although the law will takes effect in two months, less than 100 offices assigned officials or teams to handle possible violations.

The commission conducted national tour once this year and last year to explain the new law and urged government offices to appoint an anti-graft officer and report any progress by the end of June. But only a few have done so.

Instead of assigning a senior official to the task, a government official said his ministry is thinking about using the manpower of the existing audit and inspection department. The anticorruption commission, however, said that won’t be enough.

“In order to punish an official, we need an investigation of a report and a decision on the punishment, but I wonder if the existing manpower will be enough to do all that,” another commission official told the JoongAng Ilbo.

The police, responsible for preliminary probes of possible violations and deciding on whether to launch a criminal investigation or not, are also struggling. “We have no idea on how to define ‘improper’ in the Improper Solicitation and Graft Act,” said a police official.

The police said it will create a team to handle cases if the commission asks for investigations. The commission said it will have a consultation with the police soon.

Prosecutors and the Ministry of Government Legislation also said they are making preparations.

Immediately after the National Assembly passed the law last year, the Korean Bar Association, the Journalists Association of Korea, representatives of Internet media, private schools and kindergartens filed petitions. The main part of the ruling will be whether it is constitutional to apply the law to journalists and private school workers since they are not civil servants.

According to the law, a public official will face criminal punishment for receiving money or favors deemed expensive. A gift worth more than 1 million won ($880) or accumulated gifts worth more than 3 million won a year are punishable. In addition, entertainment such as expensive meals, rounds of golf or paid vacations are covered by the law.

The specific enforcement guidelines published by the anticorruption commission in May said accepting a gift worth 50,000 won or receiving more than 100,000 won in cash for a wedding or funeral will be illegal. Being treated to a meal by job-related contacts if it costs more than 30,000 won is also in violation of the law.

The law defines “public officials” broadly. Aside from civil servants and lawmakers, teachers at private schools and journalists are covered because the bill considers their work public. Even their spouses are covered.

If the Constitutional Court rules that journalists and teachers at private schools are exempted from the scope of the law, it will still come into force as scheduled in two months. But those two professions will be exempted.

The anticorruption bill, first submitted in 2011, saw slow progress but gained headwind following the sinking of the Sewol ferry in April 2014. The tragic deaths of more than 300 passengers shed new light on the corrupt relationship between Korean officials and companies in the private sector, putting pressure on the government to clean up the public sector.

Conglomerates are consulting with law firms to understand the law. Hyosung Group held a presentation session for its executives last month. “We will receive information from law firms to create internal guidelines,” said an official from the group’s legal affairs team.

Law firms said they are receiving inquiries. The country’s largest law firm, Kim and Chang, prepared a consulting manual for conglomerates. The guidelines presented specific cases to help the companies and their employees understand the scope of the law.

Concerns also continue that the law may be bad for the already sluggish economy. In April, President Park Geun-hye asked the National Assembly to dilute the bill, saying that the government’s efforts to stimulate the domestic consumption would be hurt by the law.

Retail and restaurant industries worry that their sales will plummet, as well as farmers and fishermen, because expensive holiday gifts are a source of their profits. The golf industry is also worried.

“A research institute predicted that the economy will suffer 11 trillion won in annual losses due to the law,” Yoo In-ho, deputy economic prime minister, said last week. “That is nearly 1 percent of the 1,500 trillion won [of gross domestic product]. If you think long-term, 11 trillion won may be nothing, but the problem is that some specific industries are hurt and the repercussions will spread.”

BY PARK SEONG-HUN, SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr ]

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