Accountgate in Taiwan is not exactly like Watergate in the Nixon era or Sexgate involving Bill Clinton at the end of the last century.But the scandal is just as critical to our young democracy as either of the two in the United States was to American politics.
It all started after prosecutors had begun questioning first lady Wu Shu-chen, who was accused of taking bribes in a series of exposes by Kuomintang lawmaker Chiu Yi.She was finally indicted for corruption on November 6 last year, charged with borrowing bills and receipts from friends and relatives to claim a NT$14.8 million reimbursement from a public fund under her husband’s control for the conduct of “affairs of state.”
In retaliation, Democratic Progressive Party legislators sued Ma Ying-jeou for embezzlement.Ma was questioned in connection with his expense account spending while he was mayor of Taipei.He was indicted on February 13 for “abusing official authority to obtain wealth through fraud.”On that day Ma resigned as chairman of the Kuomintang and declared candidacy for president.
Kuomintang lawmakers fought back in defense of their former chairman.They started suing all presidential hopefuls of the ruling party on exactly the same charges as prosecutors brought against Ma Ying-jeou. Their DPP opposite numbers then launched another counterattack, before prosecutors could begin probing the expense account spending of Vice President Annette Lu, Premier Su Tseng-chang and his predecessors Frank Hsieh and Yu Shyi-kun.In addition to the four, prosecutors were called on to check up on all public office holders who are entitled to the expense account. Altogether 6,500 suspects have to be investigated.On top of them all are Wen Yueh-sheng, president of the Judicial Yuan, and Chen Tan Sun, secretary-general of the National Security Council.Others include cabinet ministers, mayors and county magistrates, and government employees all the way down the official ladder to schoolmasters.Accountgate hit Taiwan.
Traditionally, Chinese government officials enjoyed no expense account.That gave them an excuse for taking bribes.To give them no such excuse, President Chiang Kai-shek decreed after moving his government from Nanjing to Taipei at the end of 1949 that every top public office holder and brass hat be awarded a special allowance, called aptly an “anti-corruption subsidy.”The money could be used at the recipient’s discretion.It was a bonus or part of his pay.
In time, however, the subsidy payment was regulated by law.Starting 1982, half of the subsidy now renamed “special expense” had to be accounted for.Anyone entitled to the expense account has since been required to produce receipts and other evidence of payment to justify the use of half of the allowance he receives.He does not have to produce any evidence of payment to spend the other half.
The state affairs fund under President Chen’s control is not an expense account, however.The budget law requires him to account for all the spending.Categories of spend are prescribed.Any spending beyond those prescribed categories – such as jewels purchased for the first lady, upkeep of the first family and President Chen’s “secret diplomacy” – are unacceptable.She is standing trial for corruption because she used receipts for private purchases and her husband, who is immune to criminal prosecution, is regarded as an unindicted co-defendant, who would be formally charged on leaving office.President Chen, who is constitutionally forbidden to run for a third term, has to step down on May 20, 2008.He has promised to resign, if his wife were convicted, but the Taipei district court is unlikely to hand down a verdict anytime soon.
Most of government officials, like Ma Ying-jeou, remit to their personal bank accounts half of their expense account allowances that need no justification because they are legally entitled to it.But Hou Kuan-jen, a Taipei public prosecutor who indicted Ma, does not think so.He considers that half to be a public fund, the unspent part of which has to be returned to the national coffers.He examined how the former Taipei mayor spent that half, found none of it had been returned, and drew up the indictment.
But Hou’s colleagues in Tainan are contesting his interpretation.They have just dropped embezzlement charges against Hsu Tain-tsair, mayor of Tainan who remitted half of his expense account allowances like Ma Ying-jeou.They determined that Hsu could dispose of half of it at his discretion as a “private fund.”In acquitting Hsu, the prosecutors disagreed with their Taipei counterpart, calling the latter a “legal hack” who sticks rigidly to the letter of law at the expense of its spirit.
It is now up to Chen Tsung-ming, procurator-general who has attended a couple of dinner parties where he met people he shouldn’t meet, to reconcile the two diametrically opposite views of his subordinate prosecutors.The nation’s top prosecutor met none other than Dr. Huang Fang-yen, the first lady’s family doctor charged with helping her make the reimbursement claim.Prosecutor Eric Chen, Hou Kuan-jen’s colleague, indicted her but acquitted the doctor on the ground that he was not a public functionary.
Nobody knows how the procurator-general can come up with what he calls a unified stand of the prosecution on the expense account spending, on which the fate of Ma Ying-jeou by and large depends.Ma might be convicted, if the procurator-general sided with Hou Kuan-jen.Should the stand of Tainan prosecutors prevail, Taipei district court judges might dismiss Ma’s embezzlement case.Though they pass judgment independently, judges take the opinions of the prosecution into careful consideration in reaching a verdict.
The problem Ma is facing now is that prosecutors have barely started looking into the cases involving his DPP rivals, while the decision affecting him is being made now.It takes months before Hou Kuan-jen may decide to bring corruption charges against any of the four DPP presidential contestants.The procurator-general has assigned Hou specifically to investigate Annette Lu, Su Tseng-chang, Frank Hsieh and Yu Shyi-kun.If the private fund interpretation is adopted as the unified stand on the part of the prosecution, Hou will absolve all of them.He may decide to indict them, if his public fund theory is accepted, but the indictment will come too late to start and complete a trial before the presidential race scheduled for March next year.
That’s why Ma Ying-jeou is crying foul.A couple of days before he was summoned to court for his trial, Ma complained in a TV interview prosecutors are after him on purpose.He said he did like everybody else with a government expense account.“Why was I alone indicted?” he asked.
In the meantime, DPP lawmakers are trying their hand at so amending the election law as to disqualify anyone convicted of corruption at the first trial as a candidate for 2008.