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Executive, judiciary branches should follow Assembly’s decision to scale down ‘special activity funds’

The National Assembly’s decision to scrap most of the controversial “special activity funds” that had been received by lawmakers like pocket money was long overdue. It is imperative that offices in the executive and judiciary branches follow suit.

The funds in the special activity accounts of public offices are intended to finance government operations that require confidentiality, including intelligence gathering, clandestine investigations and other covert operations. In general, the funds are free from audits, which means those who use them are not required to disclose where they spent the money.

Because of such privilege, the funds have been a constant subject of controversy and public criticism. The issue came to the fore during the investigation into former presidents Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak.

Both Park and Lee and their aides were found to have received money from the National Intelligence Service, which uses more than half of the special activity funds of the administration, totaling 792 billion won ($704 million) this year.

What angered the public was that much of the money given to senior presidential officials was no more than pocket money. One aide to Park spent some of the money he received from the NIS to buy an apartment.

The situation was not much different at the National Assembly, where the speaker, floor leaders and chairs of standing committees regularly received handouts from special activity funds. Former opposition leader Hong Joon-pyo admitted he “took home” part of the money he received from the National Assembly special activity account when he was the floor leader of the then ruling party in 2008.

The issue surfaced again recently in the wake of a civic group’s report that shed light on the arbitrary spending of the National Assembly’s special activity funds in 2011-2013. A fair taxation civic group also filed a suit to have the National Assembly disclose details of its special activity funds spending for the second half of 2016.

Under mounting public pressure, the Assembly and political parties agreed to scrap much of the special activity funds set at 6.2 billion won this year. The National Assembly Secretariat also dropped its plan to appeal the court order that it comply with the civic group’s request for disclosing information about the special activity funds.

National Assembly Secretary-General Yoo In-tae said that only a small part of the special activity funds will be kept. That is a step in the right direction, given that the ruling and main opposition parties had once attempted to rename the funds to enable parliamentary leaders like floor leaders and committee chairpersons to continue to use the money.

But even Yoo’s announcement that the National Assembly will keep a minimum of the special activity funds -- for use in matters related to diplomacy, national security and trade -- is not beyond dispute. Opposition parties, like the most vocal Bareunmirae Party, and civic groups have already raised questions as to why the National Assembly needs funds whose use should be kept confidential.

The judiciary branch should also face the same question, as the chief justice and other members of the Supreme Court and senior judges received monthly payments from the special activity funds. It is doubtful the court needs any forms of covert, clandestine operations.

Even in the executive branch that requires secret operations, the special activity funds that are audit-free and thus vulnerable to misuse should be maintained at a minimum level. Cases involving the NIS and the Lee and Park administrations are good examples the funds could be diverted to other purposes easily.

In that regard, Rep. Ahn Sang-soo, chairman of the National Assembly Special Committee on Budget and Accounts, was well advised to emphasize the importance of the parliamentary review of the state budget in scaling down the special funds.

As he said, the special activity funds should remain only in the fields of intelligence, investigations and national security, and the National Assembly should exercise its rights to set the state budget in line with such a guideline.

Ahn said Cheong Wa Dae and the government should follow the National Assembly’s decision to scrap the special funds. Speaker Moon Hee-sang said it is in the best interests of the nation to uphold the opinion of the people in handling issues like the scaling down the special activity funds. President Moon Jae-in and Chief Justice Kim Meong-su should agree with Ahn and the speaker.