The Korea Herald


[Editorial] Election watchdog audit

Problem-laden NEC badly needs audit amid snowballing nepotism allegations

By Korea Herald

Published : June 5, 2023 - 05:31

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Public criticism is mounting against the country’s election watchdog mired in nepotism allegations, especially after it refused the state auditor’s inspection, citing a Constitutional practice.

The National Election Commission held a commissioners meeting Friday and decided to refuse the proposed audit by the Board of Audit and Inspection. The nine commission members, including its chief Roh Tae-ak, unanimously rejected the audit despite growing calls for a full investigation into the organization’s alleged hiring scandal.

“It is a constitutional practice that the NEC has not been subject to inspection in honor of the principle of checks and balances between state institutions,” Roh said in a statement after the meeting. “The unified view of the election commissioners is that it is difficult to comply with the proposed inspection.”

But it is difficult for the public to understand why it has used a Constitutional practice to avoid the BAI’s audit, if it is indeed willing to dig into the snowballing nepotism accusations and reveal what had gone wrong to prevent similar hiring irregularities.

First and foremost, it is hard to believe that the NEC will conduct a proper internal investigation since the very absence of rigorous external audits seems to have played a part in the election watchdog’s hiring foul play. There is no doubt that the NEC, supposedly an independent agency with a neutral political stance to supervise fair elections, is struggling with a record low level of public trust due to nepotism allegations.

At the heart of the scandal -- known as the “daddy chance” scandal -- is that some of the election watchdog’s senior officials helped their children land agency jobs through their alleged influence peddling. On May 25, NEC Secretary General Park Chan-jin and his deputy, Song Bong-sup, offered to resign following allegations of preferential treatment by the election watchdog in hiring their children. They claimed no wrongdoing, but they should be strictly held accountable depending on the results of the agency’s internal audit.

At least six similar cases of suspected favoritism have been reported. Four of the cases involve retired senior officials whose children were hired for experienced positions at regional offices. The posts in question were those in which the senior officials had previously worked, sparking a dispute about a system of unfair “hereditary employment” involving much-coveted jobs at a time when a number of young adults struggle to find work.

It is not the first time the NEC has come under fire for irregularities. Former NEC Secretary General Kim Se-hwan resigned in March 2022 after mishandling early voting of the presidential election and facing criticism over alleged favoritism in which his son was employed at the agency.

The repeated scandals are bad enough to suspect that the NEC is fundamentally flawed and corrupt from its core, thereby lacking the ability to regulate itself and monitor hiring irregularities by its own staff, including secretary generals.

The NEC’s logic for refusing the BAI audit is also being questioned. It said it would fully cooperate with other investigations, such as the Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission’s one-month probe launched on Thursday. But the NEC claimed it cannot accept the audit by the BAI since the Constitution does not include the election watchdog as an administrative agency subject to the state auditor’s probe.

The BAI, however, strongly refuted the election watchdog’s claim, saying that the only organizations exempt from BAI audits are the National Assembly, courts and the Constitutional Court. The BAI said it has refrained from conducting audits into the election watchdog as part of its respect for the NEC’s independence in managing the country’s elections -- not because it is legally unable to carry out such a probe.

Of course, as the BAI is an agency taking direct orders from the president, the argument from some critics that it should be exempt from audits is not groundless. But the proposed audit is chiefly targeted at the NEC’s internal hiring malpractice, which does not involve its role of independently managing elections.

Given that the NEC -- a bloated organization with 3,000 employees across the nation -- is now fraught with nepotism scandals due partly to the absence of oversight from outside, a comprehensive external audit is needed to identify all the festering problems at the agency that has failed to understand the true meaning of checks and balances.