San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Corruption Legislation Criticized

With President Abel Pacheco riding in economyclass and canceling trips to Europe for fearof more accusations of corruption, some legislatorsare criticizing the strict anti-corruption lawthey passed just months ago.“Dangerous,” “ridiculous” and “hastily passed”are some of the words used by legislators this weekto describe the law, intended to prevent and punishcorruption and trafficking of influences.Pacheco, rather than criticizing the law he signedlast October, is pointing fingers at the press for bringingto light questionable gifts he has recently received (seeseparate story).The Law against Illicit Enrichment and Corruptionprohibits officials from, among other things, acceptinggifts worth more than ¢160,000 ($333).Late last year, Pacheco and his wife received freeplane tickets on Grupo TACA for a personal trip toEurope amounting to approximately $1,000 (TT, June3). This, and another gift of lifetime memberships to aluxurious resort in the Dominican Republic, has thrownPacheco, and the anti-corruption law, into the spotlight.The Prosecutor’s Office has begun an investigationto determine whether Pacheco violated the law.MEANWHILE, some congressmen are calling forlegislative reforms.“A law can look good on paper, but then when it is put into practice it comes into a differentlight,” said Social Christian Unity Party(PUSC) legislator Ricardo Toledo, formerminister of the presidency.Legislators are not solely concernedwith the fact that the law has landed Pachecothe nickname “Cinderella President”from other Central American leaders (afterhe traveled to a recent meeting in Guatemalain economy class). Some say thelaw goes too far in its requirement thatpublic officials must declare all their assetsand is scaring qualified people out of governmentposts.The law had been under study in theassembly since 1999. It was meant to fulfillcommitments the country assumed in1997 when it ratified the Inter-AmericanConvention against Corruption (TT, Sept.24, 2004).AFTER paying little attention to thebill for four years, legislators sprang toaction last September and quickly passedthe bill in the wake of two corruption scandalsthat implicated former PresidentsMiguel Ángel Rodríguez (1998-2002) andRafael Ángel Calderón, Jr. (1990-1994) forallegedly accepting cash from companiesin connection with government contracts.“We all read it; I studied it thoroughly,but there was a very strong pressurebecause of everything that was happeningat the time… pressure from the press, fromthe public,” PUSC legislator RolandoLaclé told The Tico Times.While some legislators continue to supportthe law in its entirety, Toledo andLaclé advocate reforming parts of it.“The ($333) limit for gifts is fine, butsometimes, for example in the case of thePresident, you cannot avoid a courtesy,”Laclé said.Some legislators also object to achapter of the law that prohibits themfrom legislating on topics for which theyhave interests.“For example, if a legislator workstoward getting a house for one of his poorconstituents, this could be interpreted astrafficking of influences,” Toledo said.SEVERAL high-level governmentofficials have resigned in recent months,saying the law goes too far. Legislatorsworry other qualified potential publicemployees may back away from publicservice for the same reason.Directors of the boards of Banco deCosta Rica and Banco Nacional havestepped down, as has a board member fromthe Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE)and an employee of the Foreign TradePromotion Office (PROCOMER).The law particularly affects boardmembers at public institutions because itcreates a division between public and privateinstitutions. Public board membersare prohibited from being paid for servingon more than one board and from participatingin any company that has a contractwith the government.“Do you know how low the pay is on aboard of directors?” Toledo asked.Furthermore, though only part-time governmentemployees, they are also subject toone of the most controversial aspects of thelaw – the declaration of assets and goods,including their clothes and the clothes of allthe people who live in their house.“(The law) is already driving a lot ofimportant people out of banks and out ofinstitutions,” said former PresidentRodríguez in an interview last week withThe Tico Times (see separate story). “If Ihave to count my underwear and theunderwear of my mate to be in publicoffice, I am not going to do it.”WHILE Pacheco advocated the lawlargely in response to the corruption scandalsurrounding Rodríguez and Calderón,the current President has suddenly foundhimself echoing some of Rodríguez’s sentiments.Pacheco has accused the press ofmounting a witch-hunt against him – theexact words used by Rodríguez last yearwhen he was accused of corruption.Pacheco’s potential violations of theanti-corruption law – the receipt of theplane tickets and resort memberships –were brought to light by press investigations,similar to the alleged corruptioncommitted by Rodríguez.Pacheco has since apologized foraccepting the tickets and memberships andhas returned the memberships.La Nación reported that other publicofficials have taken advantage of free airlinetickets for themselves and their families.According to a decree published in theofficial government newspaper La Gaceta,the government is entitled to 25 free ticketsfrom 10 different airlines. Some legislatorshave used the free tickets for unexplainedexcursions, La Nación reported.MOST Costa Ricans – 62.3% –believe Pacheco should never haveaccepted the membership in the firstplace, according to the results of aDemoscopía poll released Wednesday inthe daily Al Día. Another 27.6% said heshould have accepted the gift and 10.2%were not sure or did not respond.The same poll found only 33.8% ofrespondents said Pacheco is a source ofpride for the country; 56.2% said he isnot.Slightly less than half said the governmentis doing a regular job, and 23.2% saidit is doing a bad or very bad job.The Legislative Assembly obtained evenworse ratings. Slightly more than half ofrespondents who said they are informed ofthe assembly’s work, said legislators aredoing a bad or very bad job.The poll of 1,200 people over age 18was conducted May 21 to June 1. It claimsa margin of error of 2.8%.(Tico Times reporter Katherine Stanleycontributed to this report.)

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