Where Vietnam's asset disclosures fail, burglars succeed

By An Dien, Thanh Nien News

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 Laborers work at a factory south of Hanoi. Recently, several high-ranking officials have come under public scrutiny for accumulating unusual wealth in a country where the average person earns less than US$2,000 a year. Photo credit: Reuters Laborers work at a factory south of Hanoi. Recently, several high-ranking officials have come under public scrutiny for accumulating unusual wealth in a country where the average person earns less than US$2,000 a year. Photo credit: Reuters
Government auditors appear to have proven less effective in uncovering potential corruption than burglars and state media reporters.
In September 2013, a government decree began requiring government officials to submit financial disclosure forms.
The decree affected full-time central and provincial lawmakers (and candidates), district and commune officials above a certain level, commune-level police chiefs, military and security officers, hospital and academic managers, and executives at state-owned firms.
Every year, these individuals must declare their incomes and assets worth more than VND50 million (US$2,400) - including cash, gifts, savings, stocks, and vehicles - held both inside and outside the country.
"The declaration aims to keep authorities abreast of the incomes and assets of officials for the sake of transparency and deterring and preventing corruption,” the decree said. Officials caught making false declarations could be eligible for centure, demotion or dismissal.
But of the roughly 944,000 public officials who submitted financial disclosure reports last year, only one was rebuked for making a false declaration, the Government Inspectorate said in a report at a meeting of the parliamentary Justice Commission on Monday. The official in question was the director of the state-run lottery company in the Mekong Delta province of Kien Giang.
The meeting did little to reassure Vietnam watchers that the country was cracking down.
“The asset declarations aren't working,” Nguyen Dinh Quyen, vice chairman of the National Assembly's Justice Commission, said on Monday. “That's due to the lack of effective mechanisms for analyzing the assets and incomes of officials concerned.”
Audited by bandits
Recently, several high-ranking officials have come under public scrutiny for accumulating unusual wealth in a country where the average person earns less than US$2,000 a year.
Ironically, newspaper reporters and burglars uncovered more potentially illicit wealth among government officials than the government decree.
In July, the Communist Party Unit in the Mekong Delta province of Ben Tre said it would coordinate with the Party’s Central Inspection Committee to audit the assets of Tran Van Truyen, chief of the Government Inspectorate between 2007 and 2011.
Truyen has since retired to his hometown of Ben Tre.
The audit, which is expected to wrap up in October, was prompted by media reports about his allegedly outsized real estate holdings in Ho Chi Minh City and Ben Tre. Financial reports also showed that Truyen had hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash in addition to a significant amount of property and stock.
In August, about US$77,000 in cash disappeared from the desk drawer of Dao Anh Kiet, director of the HCMC Department of Natural Resources and Environment, an amount he claimed represented his “life savings.”
That was not the only recent case of thieves targeting a governmental official.
In July, four thieves were jailed for between 12 and 21 years for stealing over a hundred thousand dollars worth of property from a senior official last year.
According to the indictment, at midnight on January 1, 2013, they broke into the house of Dang Xuan Tho, director of the finance department in the Central Highlands province of Kon Tum and stole more than 2.3 kilograms of gold, jewelry, a laptop, a gaur horn and a stun gun.
The estimated worth of the haul was VND2.8 billion (around US$143,000).
The crime prompted the provincial Party unit to check Tho's yearly declaration of income and assets in order to determine the origin of the stolen property. So far, no results have been announced.
In another case, Dang Ngoc Tan was sentenced to seven years in jail in June of 2013 for stealing more than VND10 billion ($472,000) from several government officials in the central city of Da Nang and neighboring Quang Nam Province since 2010.
The victims included Nguyen Thanh Quang, director of the Quang Nam Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, Hoang Duong Viet Anh, son of a former chairman of the Da Nang People’s Committee and Le Thi Thuy, a spokesperson and wife of the director of the central region’s electricity transmitting company.
Analysts point out that loopholes have rendered Vietnam's financial disclosure laws virtually toothless.
The most glaring pitfall in the process is the government's refusal to make these disclosures available for public review. Instead, each official's finances are submitted for "the approval of the heads of the respective agencies" during an annual review process. The verification process is carried out only when there is a promotion or an appointment of, or a complaint that involves a concerned public official.
That poses another problem. Every year these agencies take in (and must process) roughly a million financial disclosure reports.
“Given the number of the people filing disclosures and the nature of the exercise, verifying the declarations is not a simple task that just any person can do,” Tran Thi Lan Huong, a governance specialist at the World Bank in Vietnam, told Thanh Nien News.
“Experience in many countries has shown that it is difficult to have a useful verification process, hence an ineffective asset and income declaration system, if the declarations are not selected for verification regularly, randomly and targeting corruption prone sectors,” she said.
Hong Kong - China and South Korea, for example only disclose the filing of the top dozen officials, when requested. Indonesia makes the declarations publicly available through a website that links to the site maintained by the country’s anti-corruption agency.
Romania is probably the most open country in the world in this respect -- anyone can go to the Romanian government's official web portal and review the asset and income filings of the country’s Prime Minister and any member of the Romanian cabinet.
‘No real political will’
Vietnamese government officials often describe themselves as engaged in a no-holds-barred fight against corruption, but the results continue to fall short of expectations.
The country made little headway in the latest corruption rankings by the Berlin-based watchdog Transparency International.
The 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index, which measures the perceived levels of public sector corruption, saw Vietnam advance just seven spots to 116th out of 177 countries and territories with a score of 31/100.
In Southeast Asia, it ranked seventh behind Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia.
It seemed hardly surprising that many analysts said Monday's session on financial disclosures did little but put a positive spin on a grim situation.
“It seems there is no real political will to move things forwards,” Jairo Acuña-Alfaro, anti-corruption policy advisor to the United Nations Development Program in Vietnam, told Thanh Nien News.
“So it calls into question whether the design is adequate or not. Perhaps it is designed purposefully not to detect any violation?” he said.

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