January 31, 2003

Chile proposes new laws to fight corruption

'My decision is to take on this task now, with speed'

SANTIAGO, Chile (Reuters) --Chilean President Ricardo Lagos proposed 49 new bills
on Thursday to crack down on corruption in government as the courts investigated top
officials in a growing bribery scandal.

The legislation, backed by the right-wing opposition, aimed to end secretive
campaign financing, tighten controls on public spending, reduce the number of
political appointees in public service and set ethical guidelines for civil servants.

"As government, my decision is to take on this task now, with speed," Lagos told
Chilean political leaders.

"Chilean society is not happy with what it has seen in these last few months and
we must be clear: if there have been criminal acts, those who committed them
must be sanctioned," the socialist president said.

Chileans have been riveted by mushrooming corruption cases linked to Lagos'
center-left coalition, still admired by many for leading the country back to
democracy in 1990 after Augusto Pinochet's 17-year dictatorship.

The scandal erupted in November when a businessman accused several
government officials of accepting bribes in exchange for awarding permits for a
vehicle inspection plant.

An investigation led to several indictments and quickly spread to include five
lawmakers and a former minister, who was arrested for allegedly awarding
government contracts to a fake firm to top up staff members' salaries.

The officials deny wrongdoing. There has been no implication of Lagos himself
nor have the courts issued final verdicts.

The president has called the corruption scandal the worst moment in the 12-year
government of the coalition and worried that Chile's reputation as an honest
nation might be hurt.

Opposition leaders pledge support

Transparency International said in an August report that Chile was the 17th least
corrupt country in the world, only one place behind the United States.

In an unusual show of unity, opposition leaders pledged to support the proposed
laws in Congress and help pass 15 of them by May.

"This is a historic act. This is an agreement in front of all Chileans to modernize
the state apparatus," said opposition leader Pablo Longueira of the far-right UDI

The opposition, supported by the business elite, has repeatedly bulldozed efforts to
make political financing public, as called for in Lagos' legislation.

Copyright 2003 Reuters.