News that former Transport Minister Ho Nghia Dung jumped into a job with a contractor he once oversaw as a public official sparked debate over retirement policies designed to prevent conflicts of interest.
Dung told Tuoi Tre that he took a job with the company currently building a tunnel through a mountain pass in central Vietnam just eight months after he left his official seat.
“I'm just a consultant,” Dung said last Wednesday.
Vietnamese law prohibits former officials from investing in sectors they once supervised for a certain period of time after they leave their post.
The so-called "cooling off" period for transport officials is between 12 and 18 months.
But no rules specify a punishment for those who flaunt the rule.
Dung is now a board member at Ca Pass Investment JSC.
“Mainly in a consultation role,” he said.
The company is building, managing, and developing the tunnel through Ca Pass which links Phu Yen and Khanh Hoa provinces in the central region.
Work on the project, which began more than three years ago, is estimated to cost more than VND14.9 trillion (US$703.28 million).
As a transport minister who served between June 2006 and March 2011, Dung signed decisions to approve the project proposal and the selection of its investors.
Tuoi Tre cited a decision by the company’s shareholders which added Dung to its board in April 2012, but another board member said he only joined recently.
“Being a consultant to the board carries a salary, though it's not high,” the board member said.
The company has since removed information from its website that listed Dung as a member of its board.
The site now describes him as a member of its advisory committee.
Nguyen Dinh Huong, former deputy head of the Central Organization Committee which serves as the advisor for the central government and Communist Party on personnel matters, told Tuoi Tre that Dung’s participation in the project “should not have happened.”
“The public does not expect officials to build themselves a retirement nest by creating an allegiance during their term that will ensure a safe landing after retirement,” Huong said while specifying that he was not referring to Dung or any other specific case.
Regardless of his motives, he said, the public has the right to raise questions about Dung's role on the project.
Huong said retired officials should still be permitted to contribute to society -- and that society does expect their contribution.
One can’t contribute by returning to a company you once supervised, he said.
“The public does not expect officials to build themselves a retirement nest by creating an allegiance during their term that will ensure a safe landing after retirement.”
-- Nguyen Dinh Huong, former deputy head of the agency that advises the central government on staffing issues.
He said few retired officials have invested in the sector they once supervised, at least among the central government agencies.
Many joined non-profit advisory groups like trade associations, but post-professional migration into the business sector only began in recent years, he said
He cited the example of Tran Xuan Gia, former Minister of Planning and Investment, who served as the chairman of the Asia Commercial Bank between 2008 and September 2012.
The 75-year-old was initially charged with violating economic management regulations in a grand fraud and tax evasion case at the bank, during which its co-founder and former deputy chairman Nguyen Duc Kien was sentenced to 30 years in jail last June.
But the court adjourned proceedings against Gia, citing his poor health.
Huong said the participation of government officials in the business sector can create unhealthy competition.
He said powerful officials enjoy move in powerful circles and many of their subordinates remain after they leave, so they can serve as a major asset to any company working in their sector.
“When the business environment is influenced by such relations, the situation is hardly fair,” he said.
Now that the public has raised questions about Dung, the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Transport should jump in to explain, he added.
Vice Minister of Interiors Tran Anh Tuan told Tuoi Tre he hadn't received any official notification about Dung's shift to the project's board.
Tuan said he would look into the matter and provide a cogent response.
Clear division between money and power
Nguyen Sy Cuong, a member of the Legal Committee of the National Assembly said Vietnam needs to create a longer cooling off period before retired official may legally work in sectors they once oversaw.
Cuong said other countries impose strict restrictions on such activities. In some sectors, retired officials must wait five to seven years before they're permitted to participate in the private sector.
In certain cases, they can never make the switch.
“A cooling off period of around 12 months in our country means little,” Cuong said.
He called transitions like Dung and Gia’s “dangerous.”