Antigraft law brings pain along with relief

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Antigraft law brings pain along with relief

The new antigraft law is drawing mixed reactions a month into its enactment. Some civil servants welcome fewer department dinners after work, while restaurant and small business owners are fretting over losses in sales.

The Improper Solicitation and Graft Act enacted on Sept. 28 limits gifts and entertainment given to “public officials” - which broadly includes civil servants, lawmakers, teachers, journalists and their spouses - to meals worth 30,000 won ($26.14), gifts worth 50,000 won and wedding or funeral gifts worth 100,000 won.

Since the implementation of the act, public officials are going to extreme lengths to avoid being singled out as violators. Some are avoiding all kinds of meetings with outsiders to avoid any opportunities for improper solicitation or other possible incriminating scenarios.

Businesses that catered to public officials, like restaurants and country clubs, appear to be suffering the most from the law.

“Sales dropped by some 30 percent,” said the owner of a steak house near a country club in Yongin, Gyeonggi.

The effect is even being felt by whole industries.

“The trading of beef fell by some 1 million won in the market,” said Lee Jong-beom, head of the Cheongju branch office of Hanwoo Association. “And it’s dropping as we speak.”

“We lost some 20 percent in sales in the past month,” said Kim Cheol-beom, a director of Wando Abalone Company.

Restaurants near government complexes are really feeling the squeeze. Public officials are taking more meals at cafeterias inside government complexes, where they know they will not be treated to meals that exceed 30,000 won.

“The government extended the number of holidays for cafeterias inside government complexes,” said Park Jeong-hwan, owner of a restaurant in Dunsan-dong, Daejeon, where Daejeon City Hall, district offices, and courts are located. “But it’s not helping the restaurants anyway.”

But the number of restaurants closing down has not increased drastically since the law’s enactment. According to the Korea Foodservice Industry Association, 12 restaurants in Jongno District and 23 restaurants in Jung District of central Seoul closed their businesses this month, a rate similar to that of August and September.

At a closed-down sushi restaurant in Jeonju, South Jeolla, a placard was hung on Thursday reading, “Thank you for your past support.” According to passersby, the restaurant enjoyed such popularity not too long ago that its parking lot was always full.

The law has had the unexpected impact of scaring college administrations, especially when they recommend students who have excellent academic achievements to companies. They’re scared of the recommendation being considered a solicitation.

The Anticorruption and Civil Rights Commission, which largely handles violations of the act, specified that “only recommendations made to public organizations or companies, media companies, or public schools” may be held accountable, yet professors would rather be safe than sorry.

“I am afraid that students may face difficulties in their job application process because of the law,” said a vice president of a private university in South Chungcheong. “It should be the companies’ responsibility to run recruitment processes transparently.”

But some public officials say the law has been a godsend and liberated them from forced entertaining.

“I used to have two to three dinner appointments for work every week,” said a public relations official of a company. “Now I don’t. And I actually have time to enjoy my time off in the evenings.”

According to Shinhan Card Company, customer payment records two weeks after the law’s enactment showed a 5.7 percent decrease in use at bars compared to 10 days before the law’s enactment.

“Fewer people are having meetings over drinks after work,” said Lee Jong-seok, head of big data center at Shinhan Card. “And the culture of treating business partners to extravagant dinners has subsided somewhat, too.”

Knowing that they would be restricted from entertaining, some people held so-called last suppers: drinking and dining a lot before the law’s enactment. According to Shinhan Card, people spent some 210 billion won more in the two months before the law’s enactment this year compared to the same period last year.

Meanwhile, interest in so-called paparazzi academies is growing. At these private tutorial schools, people learn how to spy on other people using devices like hidden cameras and recorders.?

The new law encourages people to rat out people violating it by offering rewards.

“We have 10 percent more students at the academy now than in the last month,” said a director of a paparazzi academy in Seoul. “But we haven’t had anyone who landed a jackpot by squealing on someone violating the law.”

According to national police, 12 violations of the antigraft law were reported in writing since its enactment. Of them, four concerned local government officials, one a police officer and seven ordinary citizens.

By phone, police received 289 reports, but many, they say, were inquiries into the law’s specifics.

BY YUN SEOK-MAN, JEON ICK-JIN [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]

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