In January, Silvie Lauder reported for TOL on the thick veil that Czech politicians have effectively drawn over party finances. Records are available only on paper or as scanned PDFs, loaded on compact discs, and only in the library of the lower house of parliament in Prague. If you live in the country’s far west, you have to drive six hours to see them. A parliamentary committee oversees the filing of annual finance reports. There is no mechanism for anyone else to make a complaint about the accuracy of the reports. Many contributions are indirect, in the form of discounts for goods and service, and therefore not part of the finance reports. The reports must be audited, but parties are free to choose their own auditors. There are no additional reports required during an election year (as is the case in some other countries), so that parties could wait for as long as 11 months after an election to reveal its donors. And campaign spending is reported as an aggregate amount, not broken down.
A Czech judge and constitutional scholar called the system ridiculous in Lauder’s article. A watchdog anti-corruption group used more measured language to reach a similar conclusion. The Council of Europe’s Group of States Against Corruption, of which the Czech Republic is a member, released a report recently calling for changes.
GRECO, as the group is called, has offered a point-by-point critique of the system. It recommends making records more accessible, requiring more frequent reporting during campaigns, requiring more precise disclosure of the value of in-kind contributions, ensuring the independence of auditors (by, for instance, not allowing the same auditor to repeatedly work with any given party), providing for detailed accounting of party spending, establishing an independent body to police the reports as well as a mechanism for citizens or media to question the accuracy of the reports.
Prague has two years to make changes, before GRECO conducts a follow-up assessment.
One item in particular struck me. The supervisory committee of lawmakers has the power, according to the GRECO report, “to act upon information received (in writing or in person) by members of the public or media,” about possible irregularities in the financial reports, but that “to this day the Supervisory Committee has never received such information.”
I can’t help wondering how that is possible, considering that the Czech media jump on shady political funding stories (although, admittedly, sometimes those stories are about outright bribes rather than financial skullduggery). Can it be that the committee will not act even if it has reason to, such as having read of questionable activity in the newspaper, unless it receives a complaint? In any event, the real reform here would be transferring the oversight elsewhere, considering that members of the public and media hardly have enough information (lobbyists, for instance do not have to register as such) to determine is something is amiss anyway.
Photo by Jiri Suchomel from flickr, under a Creative Commons license.