|The much-talked-about, trouble-hit government project to refurbish the nation’s four largest rivers is finally on the chopping block.
It turns out that Korea’s eight largest construction companies, ranked almost identically in the order of their parent conglomerates such as Samsung, Hyundai, SK and GS, rigged their bids to obtain contracts for parts of the project tendered by the government.
In wrapping up its investigations, the Fair Trade Commission slapped fines of $99 million on these building firms, a sum less than one-tenth of the estimated $1 billion they have allegedly reaped from the rigged bidding.
Will the FTC’s belated slap on the wrists of some chaebol subsidiaries be enough to dissolve widespread suspicion about corrupt links between bureaucrats, corporate executives and politicians, as well as calm down all the controversies that have arisen since the project began four years ago? Hardly. As some political opponents say, “They have just opened a Pandora’s box.”
It is disappointing, if not surprising for those familiar with the business practices of Korean contractors, that these chaebol-affiliated firms colluded with one another even for the Lee Myung-bak administration’s most ambitious, and symbolic, public works project. Harder to understand is what the government, including the anti-trust agency, has been doing since an opposition lawmaker first raised questions over such possibilities nearly three years ago.
FTC officials say the probe into the collusion case involving dozens of firms has taken a long time, and it was especially difficult to acquire hard evidence. Yet they should explain why their former boss, Chung Ho-yeol, told the National Assembly back in November 2009 that he saw signs of bid-rigging, but immediately retracted his words after Cheong Wa Dae explained there had been a misunderstanding. How will the FTC refute opposition claims that it dragged its feet under pressure from the presidential office?
The builders, too, complain they are being punished for cooperating with the government project and have even suffered losses. If so, they must submit all related documents and accounting books for scrutiny by state auditors. People are wondering what the aggregate total of unjustifiable gains fromthe entire project worth $19-billion will be if they could garner $1 billion from a $4-billion slice.
All this is due mainly to President Lee’s extreme ― and incomprehensible ― haste to complete the job while he is in office. Or, he might be right in this regard, as few of his potential successors will have continued the controversial project as it is. Debate on historic river restoration project vs. environmental catastrophe at considerable cost to taxpayers is not over, and will likely continue long after Lee vacates Cheong Wa Dae.
Had the government inspectors pointed out collusive ties earlier, they could have saved a large sum of taxpayers’ money. Now that these officials have failed to reduce the earlier damage, they should at least try to prevent the recurrence of similar irregularities. The best way to do so is to conduct thorough additional investigations and put on record those who should take responsibility.
Otherwise the 19th National Assembly must show an administration’s wrongdoings and mistakes do not end with its departure from office.
6월 7일 (목) The Korea Times 사설