Czech conflict-of-interest legislation comes under fire

Most democratic systems of government have checks and balances in place to ensure that public officials avoid any conflict of interest while fulfilling their duties. After all, if the lawmakers don't obey the law, then who does? One precautionary measure is that government representatives are obliged to declare their income and property interests on a regular basis. This is common practice in many democratic countries and the Czech Republic is no different. This week, however, a group of senators led by Martin Mejstrik published a list of public representatives who failed to fulfil their duty to declare their earnings. This has highlighted many deficiencies in the Czech legislation in comparison with other democratic countries.

In the Czech Republic, as in most democracies, public officials are obliged to declare their property and income once a year to ensure that their business activities are not in conflict with the fulfilment of their public duties. However, an investigation by the Bohemian Greenways civic association has shown that over a quarter of MPs and one fifth of senators have failed to fulfil this obligation. I asked the chairman of Bohemian Greenways Petr Stepanek, who is also a Green Party councillor, why this was so significant.

"There are two things to learn from this. The first is that our MPs and senators don't feel it is necessary to let the public and voters know what they are doing, which is something that goes completely against their mandate. The second issue is that it shows that the law they drafted for themselves is insufficient."

One of the drawbacks of the current law is that it requires at least 5 senators or 10 MPs to pass on the names of those who are not complying to a Mandate and Immunity Committee for review. This only happened for the first time this week, because for the past decade parliamentary deputies have been reluctant to "turn in" their colleagues. When the list was published yesterday, it included such well known figures as media mogul Senator Vladimir Zelezny and Deputy Chairman of the Communist Party, Miloslav Ransdorf. I asked Mr Stepanek what he thought was the reason for the failure of so many public representatives to fulfil their statutory obligation to declare their earnings.

"It's a combination of laziness and disregard for the public and then of course some of them are simply people who have so many other activities, which border on a conflict of interest or go beyond it, that they do not want to make it public. They would rather face a public announcement [of their failure to comply] than let people know what they are doing."

Another weakness in the present legislation is that it only applies to the lower house and the Senate, which means that local councillors and aldermen are exempt. As Mr Stepanek notes, this shortcoming is hugely problematic.

"It doesn't apply to local government - on an individual level as well as in terms of how the NKU (Supreme Audit Office) cannot control the budgets and spending of municipalities unless it is directly spent state money. As a result the local authorities are completely out of control."

Bohemia Greenways and the senators group who published the names yesterday are working with Transparency International to propose more comprehensive legislation to deal with this problem. According to Mr Stepanek, any new law should ensure greater public access to records of the earnings of public officials and these officials should be compelled to declare the income of their immediate relatives as well. Most importantly, Mr Stepanek also argues that stricter penalties should be put in place to punish government officers who fail to comply. In places such as Poland, for example, public representatives - from local counsels to central government - have their pay withheld until they fulfil their obligation to submit a declaration on income and property.