Friday, November 5, 2010

Transparency and Corruption in the Ministry of Culture

Minister of Culture Bernard Martínez was the first of more than 40 government officials called before the Instituto de Acceso a la Información Pública (IAIP), to explain the low ranking on transparency attained by his ministry.

The IAIP is charged with monitoring compliance with Article 13 of the Law of Transparency. Government offices are required by this law to publish 19 categories of information, including salaries and disbursals of budgeted funds. According to press reports on this year's review, 75% of the score awarded to each unit is for compliance with the law; 20 additional points are awarded for management, and the final 5 for reporting.

The Ministry of Culture initially managed to receive a perfect score-- zero.

Martínez, in his testimony, said that since the initial report, he has taken steps to improve the level of public access to information, so that now his ministry would register 15%. He blamed the low degree of transparency on "technical problems out of his hands" . Saying these are now resolved, he expressed hope that his ministry would now provide all the public information it is required to by law.

Martínez has had a rocky history at the Ministry of Culture. In September, he claimed that his vice minister for sports, Godofredo Fajardo, tried to bribe him (with 100,000 lempiras, not quite $6000) to step down and leave Fajardo clear to take over. The carrot of the bribe was followed by a stick: a vaguely worded threat that if he did not resign, there would be consequences, specifically, a campaign to discredit him.

Fajardo responded, calling Martínez a "crazy person". On the other hand, his basis for denying Martínez' claim seems to be that the reported level of the bribe was too low for someone "sitting on millions of lempiras", which hardly gives the impression he is above thinking about the job as an opportunity for his own profit.

But the story is even more complicated. News reports in September said that Martínez made his accusation of Fajardo
one day after the union of employees of Culture denounced the minister for having squandered funds of the institution to pay salaries, per diem, and bonuses to outside advisors.

The claim by the union was specifically that Martínez used funds received from international aid organizations, intended for specific projects, to enrich personnel hired at the ministry. The union claims the funds misused totaled 40 million lempiras (more than $2 million).

The union also complained that Martínez hired as legal counsel people without the proper educational qualifications. The union has tried to publicize irregular hiring of personnel lacking legally mandated credentials before. At issue more generally is the use of contract consultants who are apparently quite generously compensated, information that would have had to be disclosed if the Ministry had managed any transparency in operations.

Fajardo said that 90% of the budget of the division of Culture and Arts has been spent on salaries and per diem to contracted employees, so that Martínez had to divert funds from Sports (his own vice ministry) to supplement the budget of Culture and Arts.

Echoing the complaints of the union, Fajardo traced his conflict with Martínez to his dismissal of someone unqualified to a position that required recognition by the Honduran College of Lawyers. According to Fajardo, his order was countermanded verbally by Martínez, so as not to leave a record in print of this action.

Claims of corruption in the Ministry of Culture were first made by Martínez himself in February. As reported then, the ministry could not account for over $8 million dollars worth of funding. Martínez blamed administrative disorganization under the Micheletti regime (although he kept on key personnel from that regime). That drew a sharp and defensive response from Micheletti's minion at Culture, Myrna Castro.

The latest reports about possible corruption, published earlier this week, have Martínez saying that
while not continuing to confront his vice-minister Godofredo Fajardo, he hopes that the suspected cases of corruption in which [Fajardo] might be involved will be clarified.

Fajardo isn't the only one in trouble at Culture. Claims of corruption published some time ago on the resistance website, Vos el Soberano named others accused of profiting from the lack of transparency at the Ministry. Prominent in this alternative medium was the name of Tony Sierra, Vice Minister for Culture and the Arts.

Friday, Sierra made it into the mainstream Honduran media: El Tiempo reports from the city of La Ceiba on the Caribbean coast:
The artist's guild of La Ceiba denounced the vice minister of Culture, Tony Sierra, for intending to deduct 40% from the total of the funds collected in the TV/radio marathon in favor of the families of the musicians that died in the bus accident of Las Chicas Samba.

(The accident that led to the telethon killed 13 people, members of three bands: Las Chicas Samba, La Raza, and Kasabe.)

Now, it isn't alleged that Sierra wanted the funds for himself. According to Tiempo, he wanted to
begin a process of strengthening, organization, and life insurance, or dedicate them for musicians who, in the future, would be in similar situations as occurred for the artists who died last October 4th.

But critics note that the fundraiser was specifically for the survivors of those who died in this event. People who donated did so for them, not to fund some sort of bureaucratic process.

That's part of what transparency means: what you say you will do is what you do; you don't say one thing and do another.

Trust that the Ministry of Culture will do the right thing is obviously low-- the artists' guild called for the results of the telethon to be verified by an outside auditor.

Meanwhile, despite raising its score on transparency by 15%, other reports suggest that the Ministry of Culture is not out of trouble yet.

Proceso Digital included it on a list of ministries asked by Lobo Sosa to submit a written report of foreign travel, explaining what the business purpose of each trip was.

That's one of the other problems with a lack of transparency: it gives the impression that there is something to hide.

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