9 November 2011 

Yesterday’s release of the Office of the Auditor General fraud survey was the focal point of a seminar entitled “Cleanest public sector in the world: Keeping fraud at bay” . The Auditor General’s presentation was supported by contributions from a panel comprising Suzanne Snively (Transparency International NZ), Malcolm Burgess (New Zealand Police), Adam Feeley (Serious Fraud Office) and Alex Tan (PricewaterhouseCoopers). Few in the sizable gathering would have been surprised by the findings of the survey or the observations of the panel. Much of the commentary seemed like a promo for Transparency International although the TINZ Annual Meeting on 24 November did not get a mention. 

One of the questions put to panelists was about the corrupting influence of gifts and hospitality and of the revolving door. Responses lacked the passion and emphasis which the questioner would have expected of the country’s leading anti fraud campaigners.

The Auditor General referred to the minimalist standard in her office, where receiving personal gifts is unacceptable, where any edibles should go to a food bank and items like conference satchels should be given to charities. ( The expectation in the OAG’s 2007 Controlling Sensitive Expenditure guidelines is that agencies allow staff “to personally acquire only infrequent and inexpensive gifts that are openly distributed by suppliers and clients – for example, pens, badges, and calendars”.) The SFO director commented on the exemplary value of the six-monthly publication of chief executives’ gifts and hospitality disclosures. None of the panelists saw concerns in the growing revolving door or any need for controls which have become commonplace throughout the OECD. 

The low key response of the panelists to these corrupting influences was surprising, made more so in light of the content of the Jack Abramoff biography published last week, and his remarks in a “60 Minutes” interview. He recently completed 3 years imprisonment for extensive peddling of influence in Washington. He claims that the US political system remains corrupt, and that new rules will have no effect as nearly all politicians engage in influence-for-bribes at some level. “I am talking about giving a gift to somebody who makes a decision on behalf of the public and at the end of the day that’s really what bribery is,” he says. “But it’s done every day and it’s still being done…. 

Abramoff indicated that the most effective way to influence a member of Congress was the promise of a future job made to politicians’ staff. Almost all them want PR jobs. By offering work “…I would own (them) and, consequentially, the entire office,” Abramoff said that suddenly, every move that staffer made, he made with his future at my firm in mind. His paycheck may have been signed by the Congress, but he was already working for me.” His answer is to bar lobbyists from making any kind of gift at all —”even buying a hot dog” — and prohibiting anyone from lobbying decision-makers after having worked in government.