Independent commission against corruption

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By Neil Honeyman

An Independent View

Wednesday, March 19, 2014


THIS month, Hong Kong's Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) "celebrates" its 40th birthday. In its early days, the ICAC did much to reduce corruption in Hong Kong and has kept corruption to fairly low levels ever since.

ICAC's origins were inauspicious. In the early 1970s, the Royal Hong Kong Police Force had low morale. Its junior officers were underpaid and were vulnerable to inducements from organized crime. Some senior expatriate officers were also widely perceived to be corrupt.

A case was mounted against Superintendent Godber, a British expatriate officer. The offense with which he was charged was being in possession of "unexplained wealth," an offense in Hong Kong as it is in the Philippines.

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Under murky circumstances, Godber was able to leave Hong Kong despite there being a warrant of arrest issued against him. Godber surfaced in Britain. The Hong Kong authorities requested their British counterparts to deport Godber back to Hong Kong. This request was denied on the grounds that the extradition treaty between Britain and Hong Kong specified that for extradition to be granted, the "offense" had to be an offense in both countries. Being in possession of unexplained wealth (with its connotation of guilty until proven innocent) is not an offense in Britain.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the extradition negotiations, the majority of the Hong Kong populace (98 percent Chinese) was incandescent. The perception was that this was an example of the Brits protecting their own. [Hong Kong at the time was a British Colony and many Colonial Administrators were perceived to be aloof and overbearing].

In 1967, Hong Kong had suffered riots and there were fears that these could be re-ignited in 1973.

Something had to be done.

A British administrator, Sir Jack Cater was appointed to set up the ICAC which reported directly to the Governor. As with any organization, structure is vital. Cater proposed a structure which has stood the test of time. This divides the ICAC into three main functions. These are:

* Operations
* Corruption Prevention
* Community Relations.

These are discussed in turn:

Operations

Operation is the heavy end of the ICAC. It is given draconian powers of search and seizure - well beyond that which is permitted by the Philippine Constitution. The Operations Department is feared and loathed by the nefarious ones. The Department chooses its targets carefully. If it used its methods inappropriately, it would soon be closed down.

Corruption Prevention

The Corruption Prevention Department likes to think itself as the intellectual arm of the ICAC. Its aim is to create government systems in which corruption opportunities are kept to an absolute minimum, preferably with no corruption opportunities at all.

The Philippines' Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) and Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) would not last five minutes with ICAC's Corruption Prevention Department. Government arrangements which allow sticky-fingered intermediaries to purloin bath tubs full of cash would be dismissed contemptuously. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be the equivalent function in the Philippines. Constitutionally, the Ombudsman has powers to recommend that our systems be less vulnerable to malfeasance, but, regrettably, these powers are not used.

Is it not possible to have systems in which funds flow electronically from the Treasury directly to the rightful recipient without anyone claiming "commissions" because they happen to be in the way?

Community Relations Department

This Department has the vital role of ensuring that any reports of corruption are treated properly. Its telephone number is known to every Hong Kong resident. It will be answered 24/7 within four rings by a well-spoken Cantonese (not quite an oxymoron) voice. Equally proficient English is used if preferred by the caller. Anonymity is ensured for the shy whistleblower. Once the telephone call is made, the ICAC swings into action. One of the problems in the Philippines is that the whistleblower often has a real problem in causing his well-founded concerns to be acted upon.

The Community Relations Department also has a substantial advertising budget. Powerful advertisements which demonstrate the deleterious effects of corruption are prominent throughout the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong.

***

The ICAC is confrontational in its investigations. No one under suspicion is spared. High and low are treated the same.

The ICAC does not do mediation. Its management makes it clear to its investigators that the clock is ticking. If we are serious in the Philippines about eradicating corruption, we need to be much rougher with those who need to explain themselves. More momentum needs to be applied and cases must be wrapped up quickly. The leisurely tempo adopted by the Ombudsman's office is unacceptable in a country that wishes to reduce corruption.

An ICAC, which has no desire to make friends and every desire to eradicate corruption, is what we need.

***

"Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk" - Henry David Thoreau (1816-1862) - Journal 11 November 1850

*Neil Honeyman served in the ICAC during the 1980s

Published in the Sun.Star Bacolod newspaper on March 19, 2014.

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