BEIRUT: As the formation of a new government inches closer, Minister of State for Combating Corruption, Nicolas Tueni, said he had done all he could to fight corruption with the meager resources provided. In a recent interview with The Daily Star at his apartment in Beirut’s Sursock neighborhood, Tueni defended his record at Lebanon’s first-ever Cabinet office solely dedicated to fighting corruption in a country that consistently ranks among the most corrupt in the world.
Since assuming the role two years ago, he said he started smoking cigarettes again years after kicking the habit. “Some days are really hard, you see some terrible files.”
A MINISTER WITH NO MINISTRY
The Office of the Minister of State for Combating Corruption is not a ministry, even if it is sometimes referred to as one.
It has no budget, no employees and has ill-defined, vague powers.
Tueni said the only money it receives is his salary, which he spends on everything from water, janitorial and secretarial work to car fuel.
“We have nothing, not even coffee,” he said. “So we had to create an entity out of our own work.”
Why is an office tasked with dealing with such an important issue given no resources?
“You have to make a status and an area of operations for it for example, the Defense Ministry has the [Lebanese] Army and the defense of the nation as its raison d’etre but what is our place, especially since all the oversight agencies are under the authority of the prime minister?”
Those agencies, including the Central Inspection Bureau and the Court of Audit that stem from former President Fouad Chehab’s dabbling with increasing oversight in the 1950s and ’60s, are governed by old laws and crippled by underemployment.
“We can’t take the place of the prime minister, so we had to create some space for the ministry, and we have done this work on three levels, and I think we have succeeded,” Tueni said.
The three levels were working to pass anti-corruption legislation, setting up a hotline and other mechanisms for people to report corruption, as well as intervening to create more competition in tenders where he said “the big deal” graft was to be found.
But when pressed on why his office had not been given any budget to work with, while others such as the Office of the Minister of State for Women’s Affairs had, Tueni said, “When I asked, I found that the Finance Ministry was extremely tight-handed.
“Maybe [fighting corruption] is given a lack of priority [by politicians]. Maybe they are involved in corruption - for sure I cannot say that everybody is clean.
“What I can say is that I have really done the maximum I can do in such an environment political and practical. Maybe I’m not up to the expectations of the people but what do they expect? Even if we had the money and the authority, you can’t fight corruption in a year.”
A POLITICAL APPOINTEE FIGHTS CORRUPTION?
Tueni was appointed to the government by President Michel Aoun, an acquaintance of Tueni’s since the president returned to Lebanon from exile in 2005.
The president created the portfolio based on popular demand and his own keenness to see action against corruption, Tueni said.
But does being appointed by the founder of one of Lebanon’s major political parties the Free Patriotic Movement undermine the position, and open the door to politically motivated criticism?
“Maybe. Maybe [appointing a nonpartisan expert to head the office] would be a good idea, but I’m not a party man myself I never joined a political party ... I’m just close to the president, close in my beliefs and thoughts.”
He denied that some of the investigations he opened including into management at Middle East Airlines and the previous administration of Casino du Liban were politically motivated.
“I never accused anyone, neither [MEA Chairman] Mohammad Hout nor anyone at the Casino. I just asked for relevant information, balance sheets and so on ... but they didn’t give it to me, and I’m still pursuing this,” he said.
Why, for example, was an investigation not opened into the FPM-controlled Energy Ministry’s thrice-failed tender for emergency electricity, which, according to the Tenders Department, saw blatant favoritism toward Turkish power barge operator Karadeniz Holding?
“The Tenders Department canceled the tender three times because the [qualification requirements] fit one company that’s a great thing,” Tueni said.
“It shows that [the department] is doing its job.”
Tueni also said that neither Aoun nor Cabinet ministers had ever prevented him from looking into any issue. “No one has ever said, ‘Stop.’”
SO MUCH CORRUPTION, BUT NOT A PEEP ABOUT IT
Tueni repeatedly said that it was the place of the public prosecutor not him to announce the names of public officials or institutions suspected of corruption even if he had evidence: “We are not a dictatorship here, I’m an executive authority, they are the judicial,” he said.
“If I can cut out corruption from its source with laws, isn’t that better than accusing someone publicly, especially since we aren’t even a ministry and we have no resources and powers?”
He added that the office must be judged based on the circumstances in which it was created, for a government meant to last just five months before elections were to be held.
FIVE LAWS TO CATCH THE CORRUPT
Tueni named five main pieces of legislation necessary to fight corruption, some of which he had worked on. This included a law establishing a National Commission to Fight Corruption an “independent body with the weapons of investigation and pursuit, with detectives and investigators and judges,” that he described as “the best weapon.”
That law, along with a law allowing for the investigation and prosecution of ministers and “big public officials,” and a law uniting the criteria for all tender processes in all ministries and public institutions, have not yet been endorsed by Parliament.
Two others have: a law to protect whistleblowers endorsed just last month, and the law on the right to access information, endorsed by Parliament last year.
Some journalists have complained that the Right to Access Information Law did not have a sufficient mechanism to actually get ministries to respond, with the Finance Ministry, for example, being a major culprit.
Tueni said the law was “an achievement” and that 70 percent of ministries were responding to requests. A recent study from the nonprofit the Gherbal Initiative found that only a quarter of all state institutions responded to requests under the law.
According to Tueni, the outlying issues with the law would be resolved when the national commission is formed, because it could pursue the cases.
ACHIEVEMENTS AND GRIEVANCES
Tueni said his office’s most important achievement has been following up on public sector tenders, alongside the Tenders Department, and trying to increase competition, which lowers prices.
At the Council for Development and Reconstruction, for example, Tueni lowered “by around 30 percent a tender for a prison in Majdlaya, from $64 million to $43 million, by opening the door of competition.”
He said that the ministry had also worked successfully to stop the smuggling of fuel from Syria, which he said had been costing the Lebanese state $400,000 a month though at the time of the interview he said there was evidence that smuggling had resurged.
He also said he has worked with other parties to increase revenue from Beirut airport’s duty free fivefold. But, he said, he would be “hesitant to take the job again.”
“Look, I worked very hard, I made a lot of effort, but because people are [hurting] they are confused between the combat[ing] of corruption and the responsibility for corruption,” he said.
He offered a metaphor: “I’m a mechanic and someone brings me a car to fix, but the car is ruined because he is driving it like a madman. I tell him, ‘The car is wrecked and needs a week to fix,’ and then he gets angry and says, ‘You’re a bad mechanic.’” The moral of the story, he said, is that citizens should hold politicians accountable for corruption and not engage in low-level corruption themselves.
CONFESSIONALISM: THE ROOT OF ALL CORRUPTION?
Asked how the Lebanese people could be expected to combat corruption on a small scale when their political leaders were deeply involved in it, Tueni said: “You’re right – then don’t vote for them in the first place, and don’t bring them back afterward. Get rid of confessionalism, and then get rid of this country being divided into three entities,” he said, referring to the Sunni, Shiite and Christian spheres of influence.
Corruption in Lebanon was “a matter of war and peace.”
“We have to have to take a decision, all of us together, to remove bribery and not say, ‘You are attacking this confession or party,” – and here, every party is a confession, and every confession is a party – this cannot do,” he said.
“We inherited corruption from the Civil War; we inherited $80 billion in [national] debt from money that was poured into bad politics, bad confessionalism,” he said, calling it “a crime against the Lebanese people.”
“And we inherited a low moral attitude and a dismembered state,” he added.
“I’m not putting the blame on history, I’m putting it on the politicians and the Civil War. I’m just saying, the Lebanese people must wake up and start changing the way they do politics.”
SHOULD THE OFFICE CONTINUE, AND HOW?
Despite the criticism the office has faced, Tueni said it should remain in the next Cabinet, mainly in order to serve the national commission when that was formed.
“Next time, with the passage of the relevant laws, the ministry will be different. It will need funding and employees otherwise this won’t work,” Tueni said.
His advice for the next minister would be to pass the three remaining laws as quickly as possible, form the national commission, and begin work immediately.
And while he said the office would need staff, he advocated for keeping a small budget of “maybe $150,000 [per month].”
He said the most important places to look for corruption today was public sector tenders.
“Look at ministries, look at the big municipalities such as Beirut, Tripoli and Sidon, and how they spend their money,” he said.
Tueni also conveyed a message to those who thought his office was a joke, a farce or a face-saving measure on the part of politicians: “Be active yourself on corruption. Follow corruption and kill the corruption. If I, as a minister, am not good in their eye, it’s their right to say – but at least I’m honest and I’ve done whatever I can, so let them do what they can. We need results. Get your hands dirty – I was doing the dirty work, let them do some.
“My conscience is clear. I apologize if what I did wasn’t what was asked, but I’m at ease with myself, and it think what I did with the resources I had was good. Remember that we are the executive power, we are not the judiciary, and we can never take its place, not even if they bring Superman instead of me.”