Antigraft measure proves that one can be too careful

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Antigraft measure proves that one can be too careful

A week into the implementation of the new antigraft law, public servants are walking on eggshells to the point that there is now concern over whether this may hamstring administrative effectiveness.

Since the implementation of the ambiguous Improper Solicitation and Graft Act on Sept. 28, public officials are going to extreme lengths not be singled out as violators.

This prudence includes not meeting with people in general, in order to avoid any opportunity for improper solicitations or any possible incriminating scenarios, and this in turn is crippling officials’ ability to carry out their day-to-day duties properly.

“Towards the latter half of an administration, there is always talk about inaction,” said Finance Minister Yoo Il-ho, who also doubles as deputy prime minister for economic affairs, in a meeting Tuesday. “Following the implementation of the antigraft law, some are worried that communication between the government and the field will decrease, but don’t worry about this.”

The Ministry of Unification, through an internal meeting, recently went as far as to issue a special order to officials who have adopted timid attitudes because of the Kim Young-ran Law, “to continue with their duties as normal.”

Last Thursday in a vice ministerial meeting, the prime ministers’ office ordered, “Just because of the implementation of the Kim Young-ran Law, do not shy away from civilians and industry-related people - actively meet with them.”

This new act, often referred to as the Kim Young-ran Law after the former head of the anticorruption commission who authored the initial draft, limits gifts and entertainment given to “public officials” - which broadly includes civil servants, lawmakers, teachers at private schools, journalists and their spouses - to meals worth 30,000 won ($27.33), gifts worth 50,000 won or wedding or funeral gifts worth 100,000 won.

One director general-level official of the Financial Services Commission instructed his subordinates, “When you get an ambiguous phone call, turn it over to a director-level official.” There was concern that even a phone call from a finance company asking “how is the law coming along?” could be considered as improper solicitation. While making a call to ask about the law is not illegal in itself, this senior official was not willing to take any chances.

Likewise, the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) was lackluster on Tuesday.

Officials at the DAPA are tasked with overseeing the purchase of weapon systems for the military and frequently meet with people in the defense industry, but such contact has visibly dropped in recent days.

“Before sealing a deal, of course we need to meet with representatives of many companies, but there are many eyes watching,” one high-ranking DAPA official said. “A rival company can raise issues, so we are not even thinking of having a meal with people even if it costs under 30,000 won.”

A director general-level official of the central government has halted meetings with businessmen he used to frequently meet with, saying, “While we can make negotiations in our office during work hours, realistically it is not an easy feat. Even if there is no illicit solicitation, there can be an anonymous report or a whistle-blower that could have a negative impact on the overall career of a civil servant, thus there is such inaction going around.”

Yet another senior government official said, “One university professor who had been considered for top services with the government sent me a text message saying, ‘If you leave this to me, I will try my best.’ And I was sitting here thinking, does this count as improper solicitation as well and am I in a situation where I cannot carry out my duties normally?”

“It has to be actively explained to civil servants that the Kim Young-ran Law is not something to be feared,” Kim Yong-cheol, a public administration professor at Pusan National University, said. “That is the only way they can confidently carry out their tasks in a normal manner.”

Bahk Jae-wan, a former minister of strategy and finance and professor of governance at Sungkyunkwan University, said, “Through the implementation of the Kim Young-ran Law, the communication between public offices and civilians cannot help but be strained.”

He added, “Either public officials’ work-related expenses need to be expanded, or other supplementary measures need to be adopted.”

BY CHA SE-HYEON, CHO HYUN-SOOK [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]

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