Ethics and MPs; a look at Conflicts of Interest on the state and local level

David Ondráčka

The speaker of the lower house of parliament, a Social Democrat, has been assigned the task of drawing up a recommended "Code of Ethics" for MPs. The goal is to put an end to vote "buying" and to establish rules for dealing with lobbyists and business interests. The move came immediately after an MP in the Social Democrat-led government coalition, in an off-the-record interview that was nonetheless published, accused the main opposition Civic Democrats of offering him a 10-million-crown bribe to vote against the government in a confidence vote. Police investigations are underway in that case; meanwhile, the newly appointed Minister of Justice, Pavel Nemec, has withdrawn from consideration a new draft Law on Conflicts of Interest, without public explanation.

This week on Business Report, I speak with David Ondracka, a project manager at the Czech branch of the corruption watchdog group Transparency International, which helped draft a new, more comprehensive, Law on Conflicts of Interest, about current efforts to introduce clear rules of conduct by which national — and local — politicians must abide. I began by asking him Transparency International's take on the proposed new ethics code for MPs.

"We consider a Code of Ethics a quite useful tool to make some self-constraints on elected officials. In many countries it is used as a valid tool, which, in a way, establishes certain rules for the level of political culture, so to speak."

"The Code of Ethics for deputies and senators would be useful and we support the whole idea. On the other hand, we are quite sceptical about the possibility of drafting a quite clear document [...] and the other thing is we are sceptical about is the probability of them obeying this document, this Code of Ethics, as it is voluntary, and there is strong scepticism among the deputies toward such a document."

The legislation that deals most directly - or would deal most directly — with the ethics of elected officials at the national level is the Conflicts of Interest law. Transparency International had been working on revising that law for the better part of two years, along with a group of senators, based on the principle that maximum transparency of the private interests of public officials is the best way to prevent conflicts of interest from arising.

A main and controversial provision is the declaration of politicians' assets and the assets of close family member. David Ondracka again.

"Well, it is a very controversial act, since the whole idea of asset declaration is very controversial in the Czech political environment and most politicians at the central and local level are opposing the whole idea."

"That's one very controversial thing. The other is the inclusion of family member. Well, it is quite meaningful in our view because the possibility of writing your property [under the name of] your family members, it's quite easy. And if you don't do this, the law will be toothless as well."

"And the third key thing is the inclusion of communal and local politicians since they see it as an attack on their independence, so to speak, and they don't want to be under any public controls or public scrutiny."

Aside from provisions for the declaration of assets, although the draft law would not prevent politicians from sitting on the boards of state- or municipal-owned companies, it would require the state to pay their extra salaries or fees, so the officials would not be tempted to work on behalf of the companies, rather than the public.

Zdenek Koristka, photo:
The draft also foresees enforcement mechanisms and penalties to give the law "teeth."

"The key thing is that the current law on Conflicts of Interests is very weak and has no mechanism for enforcement. Therefore, it's just an empty shell and no one really cares about this particular law.

"The law is drafted; it went through basically all legislative rounds and processes. But, very recently, the new Minister of Justice [Pavel Nemec] withdrew it from the legislative process. We have no idea why. And we are really angry, since we got involved personally and really consider it a key norm."

In the ongoing scandal in parliament, the Civic Democrats were alleged to have attempted to bribe MP Zdenek Koristka via an intermediary, the co-owner of the New Deal Communications, a public relations and lobbying firm.

Mr Ondracka says this case is directly relevant to the Conflicts of Interests law.

"The relation to this particular bribery case, which is now in the headlines, is that part of the law is also on how to deal with lobbyists and the duty to declare any contacts with interest groups. Of course, it would not limit the possibility that someone offers a bribe to a deputy, or minister, or whoever, but the duty to declare this openly and transparently would, in our view, improve the situation."

Corruption, of course, is not limited to national politics.

The Czech branch of Transparency International last year launched a project aimed at proposing an innovative methodology for measuring an institution's tendency towards corrupt behaviour. It then used this methodology to investigate the level of corruption in the public administrations of the capital cities of the "Visegrad 4" countries — the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland.

"The Visegrad 4 index was a tool that TI - Czech Republic tried to develop to measure not the actual level of corruption, but the institutional propensity to corrupt behaviour.

"And as for results, we found out that Prague came out as the worst anti-corruption mechanism city and we found out that it its chief drawbacks are mainly in public contracting and public procurement."

"Basically, it corresponds with the results of the recent external audit of Prague City Hall, which found that almost all contracts in recent years — in all contracts the law on public procurement was broken."

"The main message of this index is not that Prague is the most corrupt capital in Central Europe but that institutionally, the possibility that the corruption will occur is the highest."