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Czech Republic: Interior Ministry Mulls 'Agents Provocateurs' To Expose Corruption

The Czech Interior Ministry is looking into the idea of using "integrity tests" to root out corruption among public officials. The idea is to send so-called "agents provocateurs" to various state offices, offering bribes and then exposing anyone who accepts. Could such a system work, and what are the dangers?

Prague, 25 April 2002 (RFE/RL)-- The market niche has been spotted, the business plan is ready, the financial backing is in place, and a team of employees is raring to go. All that's needed is to officially register the company.

"We're sorry," you're told, "but that's going to take some time -- a lot of time, in fact. But for a few extra thousand dollars, maybe we could speed things up a bit."

This scenario is common in the Czech Republic, according to a group of foreign investors and business people who complained about government corruption recently to European Union Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen.

The group -- the Euro-Czech Forum -- calls bribes the hidden cost of doing business in the Czech Republic and says they are common in many areas of public life, from getting a building permit to changing a business address. If something needs to be done fast -- or sometimes even at all -- there's often a hidden price tag, and the money is not going into the public purse.

The Czech Republic is not alone among aspiring EU nations in fighting an uphill battle against corruption. But the problems in the Czech Republic have been noted by the European Commission and show little sign of abating, despite a three-year, government-sponsored "clean hands campaign." In its last progress report on the Czech Republic's efforts to join the EU, the European Commission said it was particularly concerned about corruption in the Czech state administration, the police and intelligence services, and in banking, health care and politics.

Czech Interior Minister Stanislav Gross said last week that, indeed, reports of bribe taking in the country are on the increase, but he said this shows law enforcement is becoming better at uncovering such crimes. Still, the increase explains why last week the government asked Gross to look into the idea of "integrity tests" for certain public servants.

The idea, first floated by Supreme State Attorney Marie Benesova, the top Czech prosecutor, is to send undercover agents to certain offices where they would offer bribes and expose anyone who accepts. In a recent interview with RFE/RL's Czech-language service, Benesova cited a similar practice conducted in the U.S. in the 1980s. One famous example is the so-called "Abscam" case, where FBI agents posed as rich Arab businessmen and offered U.S. politicians cash in return for favors.

"I know this is a heretical thought and something that, in our region, is unorthodox and, some would say, unusable. But you can invent anything if you put your mind to it. We don't have to discover America. Someone discovered it before us. But we could at least use the example of the U.S. and apply it to our Czech situation. It wouldn't have to end in criminal [prosecution]. It would be enough to have it apply to people's employment, meaning you could at least throw people out of their jobs. A couple of examples like this would be enough for others to take care."

One person who welcomes the undercover agent idea is Nils Silfverschiold. He is chairman of the Swedish Chamber of Commerce and one of the businessmen who complained to Verheugen about Czech corruption last month. Silfverschiold says he hasn't paid any bribes himself, but says he has heard enough from colleagues to know how it works.

"Sometimes people bluntly ask for it, and sometimes they make a good hint, or they work through somebody. What also happens is that they work through some sort of advisory guy who they know. The state official might recommend that you talk to his friend so-and-so, and his friend so-and-so will say, 'If you pay such an adviser [100,000] crowns, things will happen that smooth the way for you.'"

Czech Interior Minister Gross said the undercover agents would likely target a limited number of "high-risk" officials -- such as police officers or those dealing with customs or taxes.

But there are difficulties with using such a method, says Jermyn Brooks, executive director of Transparency International, a nongovernmental organization devoted to combating corruption. Ideally, there should be strict rules governing when an undercover operation is justified -- such as when there is a strong suspicion of corruption. And there should be safeguards so that innocent people are not enticed into committing crimes. Even in successful cases, Brooks says, those caught might be able to plead entrapment.

Brooks says undercover operations might have a deterrent effect, but how do you ensure, he asks, that the undercover agents themselves would not be corrupt? Would agents for the agents be needed, as one Czech newspaper commentator suggested?

Brooks says it can end up as one witness's account against another's. "That's why police normally appear in twos rather than singly, so that they have a counter-witness to overcome that kind of objection. But that's quite difficult in a sting operation because [the] whole point of bribery and corruption is that people like to do it out of the sight of many eyes."

Many Czech opposition politicians do not like the idea. Shadow Interior Minister Ivan Langer says it would represent "a return to a police state, a state of spies, provocateurs, and informers."

Instead, critics suggest tight deadlines for public servants and special fees for anyone wanting fast-track treatment. Superiors could be made directly responsible for the corruption of employees on their watch. And pay hikes for public servants could reduce their incentives to accept bribes.

Brooks of Transparency International says higher pay is important but that by itself it is not enough, as income from bribes can far outstrip even a reasonable salary. He suggests another remedy -- a series of ombudsmen.

"In a country like the Czech Republic, where corruption tends to be systemic in a lot of different agencies and ministries, you'd probably have to have one of these people in each agency where you can appeal to and then they can go to the department concerned and say: 'Hey, come on. Get on with it.' But, of course, they've got to have a degree of independence."

Silfverschiold has one more suggestion -- cut the number of stamps and documents a business needs and thus eliminate bribe-seeking bureaucrats.

At least for the time being, though, corrupt Czech public officials needn't sweat too much about the prospect of being nabbed in an undercover sting operation. Czechs go to the polls in a general election in seven weeks, so any decision on whether to proceed with the plan will be up to the government that takes power after June.

(RFE/RL's Czech-language service, Radio Svobodna Evropa, contributed to this report.)