Would public asset declarations attract criminals?
Ruling political elites of Ukraine are once again preparing to hide the level of corruption in public sector from the eyes of ordinary Ukrainians.
This time, they are doing it by declaring a noble goal – to protect property rights and their owners from criminals.
On Sept. 28, the head of the presidential faction in parliament, Igor Gryniv, registered draft law №5192 It intends to close public access to information on the juiciest assets of public servants. If adopted, the law will hide from the public information on cash savings, gifts, expensive movable property (jewelry, pieces of art, antiques, etcetera) as well as to amounts of money borrowed to third parties.
Legislators from President Petro Poroshenko’s parliamentary faction claim that this draft law aims to protect public servants from robberies and kidnapping if the public knows what public officials have in their homes as inevitable results of granting public access to information on assets that state servants have at their homes. However, these so-called security concerns seem to be highly manipulative. Instead, they seem to originate from fears that corruption among public servants will finally be uncovered and prosecuted through publicity of information on assets of officials and effective work of National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine.
Are security concerns real?
Ukraine has had enough public instruments to identify possessions of officials before the system of electronic declarations was launched – and none of these instruments lead to mass home robberies focused on public officials. Information on real estate property rights of each and every Ukrainian is available online through respective registry since 2015. Since the same year, declarations of assets of judges, prosecutors and legislators are available on websites of respective bodies. These declarations include gifts: at least three judges of high courts in 2015 declared receiving monetary gifts of as much as Hr 1.9 million, Hr 1.8 million and Hr 700,000. Information on amounts of money on bank accounts of public servants is also long open.
Investigative journalists and watchdog organizations are also doing their jobs well, regularly uncovering assets of top officials. For example, Gryniv, who registered the bill to address “security conсerns,” is reported to own a collection of icons worth millions of hryvnias (which, by the way, does not appear in his asset declaration for 2015).
Potential robbers and kidnappers already know enough on who possesses wealth in Ukraine. Although there is no separate statistics on property crimes against public officials, police did not report any increase in the number of crimes against public officials after declarations and the registry of real estate property became public.
To cover the lack of evidence of criminal threats to declared cash and other expensive movable items (except for threats of confiscation resulting from a guilty verdict in corruption crimes), legislators refer to the case of Georgia, where open declarations did bring some increase in robbery and kidnapping among against public officials. However, legislators also forget to mention cases of Latvia, Moldova and Romania, where similar requirements on assets disclosure for public officials have never been reported to cause any security concerns.
Why cash, gifts and expensive movable property cause special concerns?
Mostly likely, the reason is that these are most regular forms to receive and store profits from corruption. Infamous Judge Mykola Chaus received cash as bribes and stored it in glass bottles; deputy governor of Mykolaiv Oblast arranged a special basement to hide gold, antiques and cash; ex-Energy Minister Eduard Stavitskiy possessed a collection of luxurious watches with average price of 600,000 euros. Some acting legislators and officials do not want this list to be continued with their surnames.
Interest of society must prevail
Some smarter legislators justify necessity to close public access to information on their assets by asserting basic rights for privacy and security. However, on this issue the European Court of Human Rights has already made its decision. In 2005 in the case, Wypych v. Poland, the court ruled that the requirement on the publicity of assets of public officials is justified by the public’s interest in combating possible corruption among public servants.
One may claim that the interests of combating corruption are met since a special body – the Agency for Prevention of Corruption – has access to full information from the declarations and has the powers to verify information in the declarations and to monitor the way of life of public officials. However, the level of trust to the agency among public experts declined drastically after it launched the system on e-declarations on Aug. 15 in a mode that secured the impunity of corrupt officials. This level of trust went down again after it became obvious the the registry of e-declarations is controlled and managed outside the agency. It is managed, instead by a state agency for special communications that is linked to the Security Service of Ukraine. The Agency for Prevention of Corruption is now the only executive body with full access to the register of e-declarations and is not likely to be willing to share the registry with the much more credible National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine.
Until Ukrainian law enforcement bodies and the whole system of criminal justice are reformed according to European standards, journalists and activists in Ukraine continue to perform the task of uncovering corruption. Since the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine only 250 detectives, Ukrainians count on anti-corruption efforts of watchdog organizations and investigative journalists in the same way, as citizens of developed countries count on their law enforcement bodies in uncovering corruption and bringing corrupt officials to justice. Leaving journalists and watchdogs without the tools to identify corruption in the public sector will mean leaving Ukrainians without strongholds in making their electoral and other decisions.
By Anastasia Krasnosilska for Kyiv Post, published on Oct.3.