CONSTANT MUNDA

By CONSTANT MUNDA
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The wealth of top State officials — including the President and his deputy — will be made public under a proposed law that seeks to make Kenyans aware of public servants’ riches.

The Lifestyle Audit Bill, 2019 is seeking to remove restrictions on Kenyans seeking to access information on income, assets and liabilities of persons holding public offices as part of efforts to fight corruption, which has become endemic in government.

The proposed law will demand the self-declared wealth declaration forms are made easily available to the public through a website or in an unrestricted database hosted by the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC).

Of interest will be the wealth of the President and his entire Cabinet, MPs and Senators, top county officials, executives in State-owned firms and senior civil servants who have been captured in audit reports of collusion in the theft of billions of shillings of taxpayer money.

At present, public officers are expected to declare their wealth every two years, but the information contained in the wealth declaration forms remains confidential and can only be accessible by those in pursuit of public interest.

This restriction will be eliminated if MPs adopt the proposed law that is before the Senate.

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“The contents of a declaration or clarification (on income, assets and liabilities) under this Act shall be accessible to the public,” reads the proposed clause of the bill which will replace the restrictive section if enacted by lawmakers.

The bill further proposes that wealth information on the public officers, their spouses and dependent children – which should be submitted in December of every second year to the line commissions – should also be filed with the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC).

This is likely to make EACC a one-stop shop for all information on the assets and liabilities of state and public officers.

The current law demands that public officers submit their wealth declaration forms to commissions in charge of their welfare such as the Teachers Service Commission, Public Service Commission and Parliamentary Service Commission.

EACC has no role in receiving the forms under the present law.

Analyst say that restricted public access to wealth declaration forms — which have been in place since 2003 — has done little to discourage public servants from engaging in graft and promote accountability and transparency.

“Studies show that public access to the declared wealth information has the effect of lowering corruption,” says Bernard Kiragu, Managing Partner at Scribes Services, a corporate governance consultancy firm.

“The war against corruption must be fought in the open, and this includes empowering citizens to interrogate the wealth of top officials. And those who not keen on their wealth being scrutinized should keep off public service.”

Dozens of Kenyan government officials and business people have appeared in court since mid-last on charges relating to the alleged theft of hundreds of millions of shillings from public coffers in a new drive to tackle widespread graft.

The review of the wealth disclosure law seeks to increase transparency in the public sector and curb the practice where influential state employees enrich themselves through scandals involving bogus tenders and suppliers.

The bill seeks to repeal section 30 of Public Officer Ethics Act.

The section states: “The contents of a declaration or clarification under this Act shall be accessible to any person upon application to the responsible Commission in the prescribed manner if the applicant shows to the satisfaction of the responsible Commission that he or she has a legitimate interest and good cause in furtherance of the objectives of this Act.”

The Lifestyle Audit Bill, sponsored by nominated Senator Farhiya Ali Haji, is primarily seeking to entrench integrity in the public service and offer guidelines on vetting of State officers suspected to living beyond their known income.

“There is no legal framework on how a lifestyle audit is to be carried out on a public or a State officer who is suspected to be living beyond that person’s lawful income,” Ms Haji argues in the bill.

Persons under lifestyle investigations will be required to provide information on the spouses and offspring (whether adult or children), list of assets and companies owned by the public servants and members of their family.

“Lifestyle audit may be carried out on the immediate family of a public or a State officer if it is established that a property in question is owned by the public or State officer or members of their immediate family, including joint ownership,” the bill says.

Giving false or misleading information will attract a fine of at least Sh5 million or a two-year jail term or both if legislators enact the bill into law.

President Kenyatta has over the years backed lifestyle audits on holders of public offices to curb corruption, which former EACC chair Philip Kinisu estimated in March 2016 gulps down about a third of the national Budget every year.

Mr Kenyatta in mid-June 2018 said all public servants, including himself, will be subjected to lifestyle audits to catch and root out those who have stolen from taxpayers using their offices.

“We will conduct lifestyle audit for all public servants beginning with myself as a step towards fighting corruption,” he said on June 14, 2018.

This came two weeks after he temporarily asked all heads of procurement and accounting units in ministries, departments, agencies and State corporations to step aside to pave way for fresh vetting.

The Treasury in June this year disclosed only 552 officers were cleared and reinstated in the exercise, further disclosing that all the officers remained on full salaries.

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