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Home Editorials of Interest Taipei Times Ripples of Kao scandal spreading

Ripples of Kao scandal spreading

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Campaigning for the Nov. 26 local elections has entered the final stage of fierce wrangling between candidates. In the process, snippets of information have come out that let voters ion on some of the contending candidates’ lesser-known aspects.

In the case of the Hsinchu mayoral election, for example, a whistle-blower has claimed that Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) mayoral candidate Ann Kao (高虹安), an at-large TPP legislator, fraudulently collected expenses for her legislative assistants and asked them to put their overtime pay into a “provident fund.” The expenses that have come to light include such items as hair washing, garments and makeup remover pads for Kao’s personal use. These details give a different impression from the fresh and clean image that Kao had created for herself since she became involved in politics.

Kao has denied any suggestion of corruption and said that other legislators do similar things.

However, whether her justification is valid should be investigated and clarified by the judiciary.

According to media reports, the whistle-blower gave details of Kao’s office accounts, invoices and receipts to Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Hsinchu mayoral candidate Lin Keng-jen (林耕仁). There are 15 pages of accounts, including 445 payments into and out of the “provident fund.” These accounts cover the period from Feb. 15, 2020, after Kao became a legislator, to Dec. 31 of the same year.

Among Kao’s six assistants, the one who paid the most into the “provident fund” contributed more than NT$300,000 (US$9,641), while the one who paid the least contributed NT$20,000, while Kao herself paid a mere NT$377. The total amount paid in to the fund came to more than NT$870,000.

Kao’s office said in a statement that the “provident fund” came about because several office staff felt sympathy for Kao in light of the heavy workload legislators face, so they donated to the money out of their own pockets to be used by whomever needed it, rather than it being Kao’s “personal treasury.”

However, critics have said the explanation runs contrary to common sense. They said that as legislative assistants’ salaries are not high, requiring them to make payments totaling hundreds of thousands of New Taiwan dollars would be a sneaky way of cutting their wages and exploiting them.

Furthermore, the Legislative Yuan already provides funding for the operation of legislators’ offices, including expenses for cellphones, stationery, office services, fuel and transport, plus subsidies for legislators’ service centers.

Considering how much funding is provided, a veteran legislative assistant said that Kao “really had a nerve” asking her assistants for donations.

A breakdown of the expenditures during Kao’s first year in office shows that the “provident fund” was mostly used for her personal spending. She rode taxis to and from the residence of Hon Hai Precision Industry Co founder Terry Gou (郭台銘) instead of using her official vehicle, with the taxi fares paid out of the “provident fund.”

In separate litigation involving a similar issue, a court had ruled that legislative assistants’ salaries and overtime pay are public funds, which cannot be reallocated by elected representatives. Therefore, a legislator who uses such funds in connection with their duties could commit the offense of “making civil servants make untrue records.”

If lawmakers use funding earmarked for assistants’ salaries and overtime to pay for things such as garments and a hair wash, which are obviously not related to their duties, they could commit the offense of “fraudulent acquisition of property in the name of duties” as defined in the Anti-Corruption Act (貪污治罪條例).

Furthermore, the letter sent by the whistle-blower says that a male friend of Kao’s, whose surname is Lee (李), received NT$500,000 per month from the Yonglin Foundation, which was founded by Gou. The funding, which adds up to NT$6 million annually, is suspected to be an abnormal payment that could be used as a political contribution to Kao. If this money is proved to have been used to finance Kao, it would be a contravention of the Political Donations Act (政治獻金法).

Explanations offered by Kao’s team have failed to dispel suspicions about her actions — they have only raised more questions. Kao might have been expressing her personal feelings when she asked on Facebook why such actions are acceptable for others but not herself, saying that she felt wronged by having been treated “unfairly.”

Setting aside the question of whether she was trying to shift the focus away from the substantive issues, does Kao’s statement not serve to verify the accusations made by the whistle-blower?

If this is how Kao runs her legislative office, what would happen if she were elected mayor of Hsinchu City? How can she be expected to handle the city’s more than 400,000 residents, as well as the city government’s more than 1,000 employees and budget of more than NT$25 billion?

Lin might have leveled the accusations to gain an advantage over his rival, but in doing so, he gave outsiders a glimpse at how Kao allegedly used her assistants’ expenses.

However, just when people were hoping for a deeper look into the case and for more information to be made public, Lin turned his back on the issue. Apparently, the turnaround followed an intervention by the KMT leadership. This makes outsiders wonder whether the KMT and the TPP reached some kind of compromise out of concern for their common interests.

On Oct. 31, radio host Jaw Shaw-kong (趙少康) caused a buzz by suggesting that the KMT and the TPP might agree to an electoral trade-off by “swapping Hsinchu for Taipei.” Both parties’ national leaders denied Jaw’s suggestion, but while Kao was being flooded with accusations of fraudulently obtaining funding to pay her assistants, the KMT did not take advantage of the situation to improve its electoral prospects in Hsinchu City by hounding Kao. Instead, the KMT’s Taipei mayoral candidate, Chiang Wan-an (蔣萬安), chose this moment to resign from his post as legislator and hold a high-profile campaign event. The timing gives good reason to imagine behind-the scenes shenanigans between the KMT and the TPP.

Disputes are bound to happen during elections, but they should not be overridden by political parties’ interests. Hsinchu City is not as big as Taiwan’s six special municipalities or its counties, but the fierce three-way competition in the city’s mayoral election raises the three contending parties’ handling of the controversy beyond the level of individual candidates to that of their respective parties’ attitudes to upholding clean governance.

Although KMT Chairman Eric Chu (朱立倫) has said that the whole party supports Lin, it has treated Kao quite gently by holding back on its criticism of her.

TPP Chairman Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), for his part, held a news conference to speak out in Kao’s defense and accused her opponents of spreading rumors to sully her name. Ko called for the restoration of a clean political environment for Hsinchu City residents.

His call is rather ironic. If Ko wants clean politics, should he not start by clarifying the case about fraudulently obtaining funding for legislative assistants?

As for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), it originally proposed former Hsinchu mayor Lin Chih-chien (林智堅) as its candidate for Taoyuan mayor, but had to replace him due to a controversy about his master’s theses. The DPP knew that Lin quitting the Taoyuan race would weaken the party’s momentum in Hsinchu City, but it still drew that bottom line.

In contrast, the KMT and the TPP are only concerned with putting an end to the conflict over Kao, while sidelining the public’s demand for the truth and proper handling of the matter.

It is doubtful whether the residents of Hsinchu City can accept this attitude, or indeed the residents of Taipei, Taoyuan and other counties and cities whose elections might be affected by these events. The same applies to the general public and the young people who had high expectations of Kao. The KMT and the TPP want the controversy over Kao to cool down, but its effect is already spreading.

Translated by Julian Clegg

Source: Taipei Times - Editorials 2022/11/15

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