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[Editorial] Corruption evolves

Reciprocity, with which homo sapiens survived as a hunter-gather, is an unmistakable human trait, if not a manifestation of human nature. The urge for reciprocity compels people to return favors and repay kindness with kindness. Of course, retaliation is another form of reciprocity ― an eye for an eye.

What drives people to reciprocate has long been a subject of scholarly research among anthropologists, sociologists, behavioral psychologists and other academicians. But the idea of reciprocity is perhaps best encapsulated in a down-to-earth, common-sense adage: You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.

The urge for reciprocity is a two-edged sword, not merely because it can stir up the urge for retaliation. It can also be a source of criminal offenses, as is frequently observed in the sordid symbiosis of venal bureaucrats and business concerns in relentless pursuit of profits or survival.

Probably the most common form of ill-advised reciprocity is the payment of cash for rewards. It is one of the least refined forms of reciprocity ― the least refined in the sense that this kind of bribery is apparently exposed to the greatest risk of being found out by law-enforcement agencies.

A safer way for corrupt bureaucrats to take illicit rewards is to secure a sinecure upon retirement with a business concern for which they have provided favors. Should any of them be caught providing unwarranted favors to a business enterprise in violation of the relevant regulations, the bureaucrat may simply claim that he has misread the regulations and that he did not have any criminal intent.

The provision of a sinecure for the bureaucrat, such as the post of an auditor or an outside director with hefty compensation, can additionally serve the interests of the business enterprise, as is seen in the scandal involving savings banks. A prosecutorial inquiry into the case has shown that some retired government financial regulators, now employed by the near insolvent savings banks as their auditors or outside directors, have allegedly engaged in lobbying incumbent regulators on their behalf.

There are also suspicions about retired tax officers working as consultants for corporations. A case in point involves a former director-general of the National Tax Service who is suspected of receiving 3 billion won from SK Group companies during the five years after his retirement in June 2006. This case came to light during a recent criminal investigation into an allegation that he took 300 million won from a private tutorial institute that had allegedly wanted to have a tax audit waived.

The prosecutors’ office suspects that he exempted the SK Group affiliates from a tax audit in return for a promise that his favors would be rewarded when he retired. The SK corporations retained him as their tax consultant upon his retirement. If the 3 billion won should turn out to have been a reward for his favors, it would be undisputable proof that corruption evolves as corporations hone their bribery skills.

The former director-general is not alone in having been paid by the companies that he was assigned to audit as an incumbent tax officer. Actually, many former tax officials are working as consultants for corporations. They include a former National Tax Service commissioner, who is being tried on charges of taking 69 million won in bribes from distilleries. In addition, he reportedly took 660 million won in alleged tax consulting fees from other corporations.

This is not to say that all former tax officers working as tax consultants are criminal suspects. Many of them undoubtedly engage in legitimate consulting business. But it makes little sense for such a former mid-level tax officer as the former director-general to take in as much as 50 million won in consulting fees each month for five years.

A watertight process of administering criminal justice must be launched against this and other suspected tax consultancy cases to prevent what appears to be a new form of bribery from taking root. For its own efforts in this regard, the administration will have to tighten regulations on tax consultancy by promoting the revision of the law on the work ethics of public officeholders.
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