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[Editorial] Use same yardstick

Lawmaker reveals ‘unauthorized’ data on official expenses; Cheong Wa Dae denies wrongdoing

Debate is mounting over the disclosure of “unauthorized” data on Cheong Wa Dae’s use of official expenses.

Shim Jae-cheol, a lawmaker of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party, revealed Friday that Cheong Wa Dae used official expenses to pay its officials an allowance of 100,000 won ($90) to 250,000 won per session, even for attending staff meetings from June last year to February this year.

Shim said he found this out by analyzing official expenses of government agencies that his aides had downloaded from a website run by the Korea Public Finance Information Service.

The Ministry of Economy and Finance and the service have filed a complaint against the lawmaker, alleging Shim’s aides downloaded the “unauthorized” digital files illegally.

The prosecution has raided the lawmaker’s office at the National Assembly, while Cheong Wa Dae has vowed legal action. The ruling party is threatening a boycott of a committee that Shim sits on.

Shim argues the data were downloaded legitimately with an ID authorized by the ministry. He says data were accessed accidentally due to an error in the system, and accused the ministry and the service of hurling false charges.

Meanwhile, the Liberty Korea Party has criticized the government of trying to gag the opposition.

However, no one appears to be disputing the data. The points of controversy are as to whether the information was downloaded illegally and whether Cheong Wa Dae used official expenses appropriately. The former is a matter to be determined by the prosecution and the court. What arouses people’s curiosity is the issue raised by Shim -- whether the presidential office misused official expenses.

Shim disclosed Thursday that Cheong Wa Dae officials had inappropriately spent 245 million won using government credit and debit cards from May 2017 to August this year, such as at bars late at night, over weekends or on holidays.

Misusing official expenses is a serious problem. Such practices by government officials are among the evils President Moon Jae-in has vowed to eradicate.

Government guidelines make it a rule to ban official expenditures after 11 p.m., as well as on weekends and holidays. However, Cheong Wa Dae says it works “24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” so the guidelines cannot apply to the presidential office.

This excuse is hardly convincing. Official expenses spent at bars late at night can hardly be viewed as related to official business. In some cases, the names of spenders and the purpose of expenses were reportedly left blank, though the money had been spent on expensive dinners. This constitutes evidence, albeit circumstantial, that official expenses were misused or managed loosely.

The 245 million won that Shim argues Cheong Wa Dae staff spent inappropriately may seem small, but the amount does not matter. It is a matter of morality.

Closely examining related data and evidence is the way to find out which side is speaking the truth -- Shim or Cheong Wa Dae.

Of course, the prosecution or state auditors can investigate controversies, but considering concerns over possible biased probes by government institutions, parliamentary hearings or inspections of government agencies are needed.

And taking this opportunity, it is worth considering the scrutiny of official expenditures of the government and institutionalizing such scrutiny.

The Moon administration mobilized the Board of Audit and Inspection to examine the use of a company credit card by a KBS director -- appointed during the previous administration -- and find any misuse. He was dismissed in December last year.

The board found he had misused expenses of 3.27 million won over two years, or an average of 136,000 won a month. This reportedly included even 2,500 won misused to pay for a roll of gimbap.

The Moon administration then approved the appointment of a KBS figure who had used a company credit card at a karaoke in Busan on the day the Sewol ferry sank as the network’s new president.

Cheong Wa Dae must ask itself whether it applied the same strict yardstick to itself when it said its staff did nothing wrong because they work 24/7-365.