There are very high expectations among the citizens that the proposed Supreme Court (SC) commission on corruption will yield far-reaching outcomes.
When responding to the government’s request, and hopefully accepting the task, the SC needs to carefully define and undertake this assignment. Otherwise, it could get stuck in a quagmire – given the complexity of the task and its magnitude – and not be able to manage the inherent risks of such a sensitive task. Several suggestions are made here to ensure that the findings and recommendations of the commission achieve two important objectives: punishing the worst offenders; and establishing a framework and mechanism to check corruption in the future.
To start with, the SC needs to take the following actions. First, the SC must send two unambiguous messages to the politicians and all stakeholders:
• The SC will not allow anyone inside or outside the political system to use the noise of the investigation to derail the democratic process. The SC must reiterate the obvious– that the present government should and must continue until it completes its full term, and that any change in government and leadership must come through the mechanisms laid out in the constitution.
• The SC must make it crystal clear that those being investigated are completely innocent, unless proven otherwise, and they are only in the ‘net’ because they hold a high public office. Otherwise, honest holders of high public office (and their families) will be stigmatised for life. It must also emphasise that it will consider applying contempt of court to all the politicians and members of the media who indulge in witch hunts and media trials before the investigations are complete.
The second immediate action, also suggested by many, is engaging an international forensic auditing firm to lead the investigation task force. Besides the international firm, the task force should comprise the best and brightest personnel, of high integrity, of NAB, the FIA and the FBR and leading domestic chartered accountants. Inducting an international firm to lead the effort is necessary for several reasons: providing credibility and impartiality to the process, applying global best practice lessons and training local agency staff to conduct such exercises.
It will probably take at least three months to engage a good international firm. The SC would be well advised to seek the help of international agencies (such as Transparency International) to manage the procurement process to engage the world’s leading firm in this field.
While the aforementioned task force will develop the final scope and mechanism for the investigation, a few suggestions are made in this regard. First, the public office holders, and others, who are need to be investigated should be selected carefully – only the few hundred people whose corrupt practices can damage the country the most should be included in the investigation. The commission should also not go too far back in history – perhaps no more than 15 years back – to ensure that the task is manageable. Virtually all current ‘high and mighty’ will be covered by the 15 year cut-off rule.
The following two categories of high-level public office-holders should ideally be investigated to determine whether they indulged in corrupt practices while in office: Category one should include presidents, prime ministers, chief justices, service chiefs, chief ministers and chairpersons of political parties. The number of people likely to be investigated will not exceed 40-50.
Category two should include all federal and provincial ministers, SC and high court judges, three star military officers, grade 22 position holders, chairpersons of regulatory and investigation agencies and the heads of agencies like Wapda, Pakistan Railways, Defence Procurement and state enterprises. This category should also include the businessmen named in the leaked Panama Papers as well as media people name in them. Category two is likely to comprise a few hundred people.
The people included in both categories should be given at least three months to file a statement of their domestic and overseas assets (and those of their immediate family), as of December 2015, and reconcile this with the sources of income reported in their (and their immediate family’s) tax returns over the last 15 years. They should also be given the opportunity to fully disclose their concealed assets, without being subject to penalties under the concealment laws. This would be akin the opportunity to come clean given to those investigated by Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in many other countries.
The list of people under investigation should be made public, so that citizens and civil society are given the opportunity to identify assets possibly concealed by these individuals and their immediate family. An aggressive TV and print media campaign should be undertaken to solicit information from the public.
The wealth/income statements provided by the people in categories one and two, along with whatever information is provided by the public, should then be investigated by the task force to establish any evidence of corrupt practices. The task force should be given at least 6-8 months to complete the investigation of category one office-holders, and another 18-24 months to complete the investigation of the category two list. The intent should be to complete the investigation of all politicians, well before the next elections.
The benefit of doubt must be in favour of those being investigated. And the commission should, publicly, give a clean chit to all those whose declared income sources reasonably match their accumulated assets. For all others, the commission should recommend: (i) debarment from holding public office; (ii) the payment of penalties on concealed income and assets; (iii) forfeiture of pension and rank; (iv) the confiscation of declared and concealed assets, not reasonably supported by declared sources of income; and (v) jail terms for the worst offenders, who violated the trust of the people.
These are just a few ideas. In deciding the way forward, the SC must ensure the following: the scope and coverage of the investigation is manageable; the investigation must meet highest standards of impartiality and auditing; the people under investigation are not subject to media trials, simply because they hold a high office; a mechanism and framework is established to routinely undertake such investigations in the future; and measurable ethical and integrity standards are established for all those who hold high public office.
The writer is a former operations adviser at the World Bank.