Prison term for Taiwan's ex-president highlights need for accountability reforms

Thomas Ching-peng Peng [Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, National Taiwan University]: "On September 11, 2009, Taiwan's ex-President Chen Shui-bian was sentenced to life in prison and fined NT $200 million on charges of embezzlement, taking bribes, and money laundering, involving a total of NT $490 million (US $15 million) while in office from 2000-2008. The implications of Chen's indictment on the current Taiwanese administration include the following aspects:


The inadequacy of the accountability mechanisms is clearly exposed

Due to the imbalance of institutional power and accountability mechanisms in the constitution, Chen's corruption went through a long period without proper checking. According to the constitution, the President is popularly elected and appoints a premier to handle the executive branch except for military and diplomatic affairs, which are totally entrusted to the President. The President does not need to answer to Congress and may merely deliver an annual state of the nation address to the Congress. However, if the President exercises implied and extended power to play illegal money games, the institutional mechanism of holding him accountable is relatively weak, if it exists at all. Unless the President is recalled or impeached on the ground of treason or rebellion, he is exempted from penal charges. Chen's relentless corruption evidenced the weakness of this constitutional design.


The unrestrained power of the presidential appointment needs to be changed

Since the President can unilaterally appoint the Premier without the consent of the Congress, even to the extent that he may act against the majority of the Congress as Chen did, he has significant power to determine political and civil service appointments. The fact that an intelligence chief withheld Chen's money laundering information, escaping the supervision of his Minister and the Premier, is an example of the influence the presidential appointment power can have in governmental operations. Similarly, the integrity of the controversial Attorney General in handling Chen's prosecution case is widely questioned because of the fact that he was previously nominated by ex-President Chen.


The legal framework for political donations must be improved

A Political Donations Act was passed on March 31, 2004. Before this, there were no legal restrictions on political donations in Taiwan. Even with the Political Donations Act in place, Chen repeatedly argued that the money his family received was income from political donations rather than bribery. Although the Political Donations Act was overhauled in 2009, the grey area of political donation remains a great issue in public administration since the Act regulates political donations to candidates only during certain months before election.


The accounting procedure for discretionary expenses of public officials must be strictly enforced

In the past, in order to pay for the social functions of public officials, there was an administrative custom that Taiwanese administrators at all government levels could use a certain amount of discretionary funds with and without receipts. The legal rule on the discretionary expenses requiring receipts was not strictly followed. Chen's family used the State Affairs Fund for household items and even collected receipts from their friends to claim the expenses. The indictment of Chen's forgery crime on the State Affairs Fund will undoubtedly change the age-old administrative custom and lead to legal enforcement of discretionary expenses. "

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