Loopholes plague decree requiring Vietnam officials, lawmakers to declare assets

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But declarations will not be in public realm; family members out of the net

A man pushes a bicycle past an ATM booth of the Standard Chartered Bank in Hanoi. Analysts say perhaps the most glaring loophole in an amended government decree that requires officials and lawmakers to reveal their incomes and assets annually is that the declarations would not be accessible to the public online. PHOTO: REUTERS

A government decree that supersedes an existing one and requires officials and lawmakers to reveal their incomes and assets annually fails to plug major loopholes that enable people to get away with corruption, analysts said.

Perhaps the most glaring is that the declarations of assets would not be accessible to the public online, they said.

But they welcomed the fact that the declarations would no longer be confidential and be used only to consider promotions, appointments, and complaints against a particular official.

This had been the case in the previous version of the decree in 2011.

The declarations will only be disclosed at annual review meetings of an official's agency and posted in their office "with the approval of the heads of the respective agencies."

"There is an inherent conflict of interest in this situation whereby heads of agencies would tend to cover up and not let outside inspectors go more deeply into the case," Tran Thi Lan Huong, governance specialist at the World Bank in Vietnam, told Vietweek.

"Will the head of the agency concerned be willing to admit that there was some form of corruption in that office?

"At the end of the day, the head of that agency would be held accountable to that corruption."

Analysts urged the authorities to close this loophole.

"Only if public officials' declarations are made available to the public in a timely and user-friendly manner, can the media, civil society, and interested citizens be able to scrutinize such declarations and identify potential wrongdoings," Dao Nga, executive director of the Vietnam chapter of Germany-based NGO Transparency International, said.

Who does it target?

Full-time central and provincial lawmakers - as well as candidates - district and commune officials above a certain level, commune-level police chiefs, officers who head military and security units, hospital and academic managers, and executives of state firms come under the purview of the decree, which took effect September 5.

Every year they have to declare their incomes and all assets worth more than VND50 million (US$2,400) - including cash, gifts, savings, stocks, and vehicles - held within and outside the country.

"The declaration aims to keep authorities abreast of the incomes and assets of the officials for the sake of transparency and deterring and preventing corruption," the decree says.

Officials caught making false declarations can be reprimanded or face demotion or dismissal.

Analysts point out that the loopholes that rendered its earlier versions virtually toothless have not been plugged.

Around 620,000 public officials are set to list their assets and incomes on paper starting at the end of this year.

The millions of declarations expected in a few years would overwhelm public agencies, analysts warned.

"This simply makes the systems of declarations unmanageable from the very beginning," Jairo Acuña-Alfaro, anti-corruption policy advisor to the United Nations Development Program in Vietnam, told Vietweek.

Since the decree was first issued in 2007, analysts have urged the government to consider addressing the most corruption-prone sectors first before enlarging its scope.

But clearly this has fallen on deaf ears, and analysts fear it could make verifying the declarations too difficult.

"Given the number of the filers and the nature of the exercise, verifying the declaration is not a simple task that anyone can do," World Bank's Huong said.

"The current arrangement for verification, where human resources persons and the heads of agencies are charged with verifying the filings, makes it a formidable task."

The government admitted in a report this week to the National Assembly, Vietnam's legislature, that of around 632,000 public officials who declared their incomes and assets last year, only three were rebuked for false declarations.

But with no plan to put the declarations of public officials in the public realm, Vietnam will compare poorly with other countries.

In Hong Kong, China, and South Korea the filings of the top dozen officials have to be disclosed when requested.

In Indonesia, the declarations are on a website linked with that of the anticorruption agency.

Hard to tell

A 2012 study by the Government Inspectorate and the World Bank found that many government officials earn from "unofficial" sources. 

Of nearly 2,000 officials in 10 localities and five central government agencies, 79 percent were found to have other incomes on top of salaries and official bonuses like payments for attending meetings, gift money and others.

More than 82 percent of those earning extra money said it amounted to less than half their salaries, 11 percent said it was 50-100 percent of their salaries, and the rest admitted it was up to five times their salaries.

It is in this context that the failure to first focus on corruption-prone sectors is inexplicable.

Vietnam has among the most comprehensive anti-corruption laws in Asia, but poor implementation has made them ineffective, analysts said.

The country ranks poorly in global corruption surveys, standing 123rd out of 176 countries in the Transparency International-commissioned Corruption Perception Index last year.

The government said in the report to the National Assembly this week that corruption has not abated and has permeated many sectors of the political system.

At a Communist Party's Central Committee meeting last October, General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong admitted to the failure to address rampant corruption.

He said the Politburo, the Party's decision-making body, had "seriously criticized itself and admitted to major mistakes."

Trong said some senior Party members and their "wives and children" had failed to behave in an exemplary manner.

Since last year several legislators have been even more forthright, publicly accusing many bureaucrats of funneling their ill-gotten gains, obtained in the forms of houses, lands, or cars, to their family members and close relatives.

"Such goings-on have continued and are getting increasingly sophisticated today," Le Nhu Tien, an outspoken lawmaker who raised this issue at a house session last year, told Vietweek.

The decree stops short of requiring family members of officials to disclose their incomes and assets.

Conflict-of-interest laws too are weak in Vietnam, analysts said.

Given all this, "it is all but impossible to distinguish between legitimate and ill-gotten gains," Tien said.

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