The Korea Herald


[Editorial] Absence of oversight

Audit reveals irregularities among NEC employees in violation of anti-graft laws

By Korea Herald

Published : July 13, 2023 - 05:30

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The National Election Commission, whose reputation suffered a serious setback over a nepotism dispute in recent months, is now in hot water again as a new inspection has revealed different types of irregularities.

The Board of Audit and Inspection conducted a regular inspection and announced Monday that 128 employees of the election watchdog violated the country’s anti-graft law by misusing taxpayer money.

The audit shows that some NEC committees did not pay the non-permanent commissioners for attending every meeting during an election period, which is set at 60,000 won ($46), and instead used the accumulated money for their own expenses and private purposes.

Twenty employees spent the illicitly collected money for their own overseas trips to Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam, as well as golf outings. And 108 others took away the money by concocting a variety of falsified reasons.

Out of 249 local election commissions across the nation, the BAI discovered 146 commissions kept the fees in a single account for illicit purposes instead of paying them to non-permanent commissioners, most of whom are civilians with separate full-time jobs.

The way the NEC employees routinely engaged in irregular practices illustrates the underlying problems that can arise when a state body is not supervised and scrutinized by external oversight and regular audit.

The NEC, established in 1963, has repeatedly rejected a regular audit of the BAI, claiming that its special status as an independent constitutional body does not warrant such external oversight.

With new irregularities exposed, however, the NEC’s self-styled claim for the importance of independence from political influences is seen as a lame excuse to hide its problematic and systematic irregularities involving the misuse of taxpayer money despite its supposedly lofty identity that ensures fair elections.

Given that there were 1,925 NEC employees working for local election commissions as of November last year, the 128 employees caught in violation of the anti-graft law accounted for 6.6 percent of the total, marking a serious level of problems in consideration of the election watchdog’s official status.

In response to the audit result, the NEC claimed its employees in question are not subject to the anti-graft law, since local commissioners are higher NEC officials, so they can freely give money and gifts to low-ranking employees without limitation.

Surprisingly, the NEC’s central headquarters had put out a post that justifies its arbitrary interpretation of the gift-related practice on its internal bulletin board twice -- in 2016 and 2018. Critics say the NEC’s arbitrary interpretation in a way that allows employees to take illicit money and gifts is an indication of its deep-rooted moral problems.

The state audit agency also said local non-permanent commissioners hold honorary posts as civilians, and they cannot be deemed as public officials when they are not carrying out public duties during elections.

Moreover, the BAI said public officials must not take money or gifts in connection with their jobs regardless of purposes.

It is deeply regrettable that the NEC’s headquarters officially gave a green light to its employees’ irregular activities, even though high-ranking election officials are supposed to prevent such irregular practices.

The new revelations concerning commissioner fees came after the NEC identified 21 instances of suspected nepotism involving the hiring of officials’ families and relatives.

During elections, even a minor offense can result in strong penalties. The NEC employees are responsible for implementing such strict regulations to make sure elections are held in a fair and square manner. For this reason, the NEC is required to hold high moral standards. Unfortunately, the election watchdog has utterly failed to watch out for its own failures.

Given the gravity of the situation, the NEC has to do some serious soul-searching and take aggressive steps to strengthen internal regulations and ethical standards to block future irregularities. The government needs to consider asking the BAI to regularly conduct a stringent audit of the NEC in consideration of the election watchdog’s lack of self-regulation.