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[Editorial] Closing big loophole

Government-drafted bill on conflicts of interest must be enacted as it is

The government has issued a public notice on a legislation bill regarding conflicts of interest involving public officials. There are solid reasons the National Assembly should enact the bill without a hitch.

The bill, written by the Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission and made public last week, will be sent to the National Assembly after a 40-day public review.

If enacted, it would close a major loophole that has been left out despite the numerous legislative and administrative initiatives to curb corruption in officialdom.

Indeed, the ACRC-authored bill includes comprehensive measures to identify and check potential conflicts between the professional duties and personal interests of civil servants and elected public officials.

It particularly did well to focus on those vulnerable to misdeeds -- officials who handle permissions, licenses, hiring, promotions, audits, investigations, funds and budgets, among other things.

Another key element of the bill is the ban on public officials from making personal use of confidential information they acquire in the line of duty. In short, it prohibits public officials from exploiting their duties and abusing their authority to pursue personal interest.

More importantly, it covers virtually all the civil servants and elected officials in the three branches of government. Those subject to the bill include elected officials like the members of the National Assembly, mayors and provincial governors, public employees of the legislative and judiciary branches, local governments and public organizations.

This is important because the nation has lacked legal grounds to deal with and punish public officials involved in conflicts of interest.

There have been some recent cases that drew public attention to the problem, including the corruption scandal surrounding Rep. Sohn Hye-won, a former ruling party lawmaker.

Sohn, now an independent lawmaker because she ditched the party membership under strong public pressure, had been indicted by the state prosecution on suspicions that she took advantage of her membership in the National Assembly Culture, Tourism and Sports Committee to orchestrate suspicious investments in relation to an urban cultural restoration project in the southwestern city of Mokpo.

Sohn denied any wrongdoing, but prosecutors said that her relatives and acquaintances allegedly bought properties in a zone designated by the government for renovation. Legal experts pointed out that it was a typical case of conflict of interest.

There were more cases involving lawmakers and senior officials. One lawmaker called a judge into her National Assembly office to seek favors regarding a trial involving the son of her acquaintance.

It was revealed during the parliamentary confirmation hearing of a Constitutional Court justice that she possessed stocks of a company which was under trial for which she was a member of the judging panel.

These cases enraged the public and bolstered calls for legislating tough rules on conflicts of interest. Which is why major parties -- ruling and opposition -- welcomed the ACRC-drafted bill, at least outwardly.

Judging from past experiences, however, we should not let our guard down. In fact, the main opposition Liberty Korea Party expressed concerns that the bill is too wide-ranging and may be abused by the government in power.

Due to similar logic and arguments that excessive conflicts of interest restrictions on lawmakers could hamper their duties and activities, the legislation of a pioneering bill was aborted in 2013.

The landmark anti-corruption bill -- Improper Solicitation and Graft Act , also called Kim Young-ran act after the then ACRC head -- took three more years to become law, but without a clause for conflicts of interest, due to opposition from lawmakers.

In order to make up for the act’s defects, the administration revised in January last year the presidential decree for the Code of Conduct for Public Officials to include guidelines on conflicts of interest. But it did not stipulate penalties and was limited to civil servants in the executive branch.

The ACRD-drafted bill will likely plug all these and other loopholes that have been blamed for allowing ethical lapses of civil servants and elected officials. The National Assembly ought to legislate it without modifying key components of the bill. It is essential for making this society cleaner and more transparent.