GOVERNMENT officials say they are unsure whether individuals profiting from payments to “ghost” civil servants will be prosecuted under the Kingdom’s new Anticorruption Law, sparking questions about how the long-awaited legislation will be implemented.
Ngo Hongly, the secretary general of the Council for Administrative Reform at the Council of Ministers, said this week that a census of civil servants begun last month had uncovered around 2,000 ghost civil servants – workers who are still on the government payroll despite having left their jobs – after having probed 21 of the 26 government ministries. He declined to comment on whether individuals profiting from salaries for ghost civil servants would be prosecuted under the Anticorruption Law, though he said the ghost names discovered thus far were costing the government an estimated US$2 million each year.
Cambodian People’s Party parliamentarian Cheam Yeap said Wednesday that the Anticorruption Law “mentions this issue”. If individuals are discovered pocketing the salaries of ghost civil servants, he noted: “The law says prosecutors may file a complaint to punish those people.”
Cheam Yeap, added, however, that he did not think it would be prudent to immediately punish government officials and others caught committing graft violations, saying they may not realise they are breaking the law.
“For our enforcement, we must first only warn those individuals who are getting money from ghost names,” he said. “We must proceed step by step.”
Ngo Hongly said Wednesday that no officials currently working in the government have yet been discovered pocketing ghost civil servant money.
A two-day census of the Ministry of Education is to begin today, Ngo Hongly said, and the Ministries of Interior, Health, Tourism and Agriculture are to be surveyed by the end of the month. After the census of the ministries, he said, government officials will survey offices at the provincial level, with the work to be completed “around October or November”.
The Anticorruption Law is to go into effect in November.
Yeng Virak, executive director of the Community Legal Education Centre, said that in principle, those who are caught siphoning the salaries of ghost servants “should be prosecuted”. For the anticorruption effort to succeed in the long-term, however, he said targeted enforcement would likely be more effective than arresting every single offender.
“You need to address the higher level, not the junior guys that somehow need to make a living,” Yeng Virak said. “If you are talking about prosecutions, you need to talk about those who are most responsible.”
Cheam Yeap said the government “sees many kinds of ghost names”, and offered the following taxonomy:
“First, there are dead officials’ names, but living officials take their salary, like in the police and military forces and in other offices. Second, there are people who work at private companies but still come to take their salary from the government. Third, there are people who don’t come to work, and their bosses take their money. Finally, there are ghost civil servants whose salaries go to the budget of the ministry or office where they work.”
According to an unofficial translation of the Anticorruption Law from the development NGO Pact Cambodia, suspects may be prosecuted for embezzlement, a punishment under the Kingdom’s penal code, as well as for “illicit enrichment”.
“Petty” corruption offences, defined as acts committed “for daily survival” that are “not harmful to society”, carry jail terms of anywhere between seven days and five years, whereas “abuse of power” offences by elected officials can fetch up to 10 years in prison.
Along with a mandate to investigate these and other offences, the law gives the new Anticorruption Unit at the Council of Ministers the power to “conduct mass education and awareness with regard to the negative impact of corruption and encourage public participation in preventing and combating corruption”.
SRP spokesman Yim Sovann said Tuesday that this approach could be the best way of addressing many of the Kingdom’s graft issues.
Particularly if offences of higher-ranking officials are ignored, Yim Sovann said, prosecutions at the grassroots level could do more harm than good.
“For the low-ranking officials, education should be done first, and then train them again, again, to make them aware of the law,” he said. “The corrupt officials must be prosecuted starting from the top. Sometimes they just prosecute the small, the petty corruption.”