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Thursday, June 4, 2009

Freedom of information laws are not all created equal

click to enlarge Upper-class twits: Two of Britain's ousted MPs
  • Upper-class twits: Two of Britain's ousted MPs

Say what you will about the American system of government — the cozy relationships between lawmakers and lobbyists, ineffective campaign finance laws, politicians' questionable perks, etc. — but, compared to other Western countries, our system is  surprisingly open (notwithstanding the executive obfuscations of the Bush Administration).

I was reminded of this on a vacation last week in England, where the media is ablaze with articles about the biggest political scandal in a generation. The Daily Telegraph, an otherwise conservative newspaper, got the scoop: Ministers of Parliament, or MPs, had been using their expense accounts — taxpayer money, mind you — to pay for such dubious items as a moat-cleaning for a country manse, an electrical massage chair and a $2,600 duck house for a private lake.

Apparently, MPs can get reimbursed for living expenses, such as rent on a flat in London if their district is elsewhere. But the media revelations have exposed a system that was consistently abused. Some of the improprieties involved extravagances that should not have put on the public tab. Others were clear instances of cheating — rent for property that had been sublet, hiring family members and claiming homes that had already been sold.

A number of MPs have already stepped down, including — for the first time in three centuries — the Speaker of the House of Commons. It's all very amusing to read about. But the point is that British politicians were allowed to get away with all of this for years — the improper expenses are all at least four years old — because England doesn't have the kind of sunshine laws we enjoy here.

That country's freedom of information law had actually been tightened three years ago, which prompted an American freelance reporter to file a request regarding MP's expenses. But she never got the information; instead, she was stonewalled by Parliament, which even considered rescinding the liberalized law to protect its members from scrutiny. In the end, the information was leaked by a government insider, who reportedly sold disc-fulls of documents to the Telegraph.

Obviously, American politicians manage to find plenty of wiggle room to accept private jet rides and commit other shenanigans, but in most cases, it's relatively easy for journalists and other snoops to track this information down. If I were so inclined, and had the money to cover the administrative costs, I could get the phone log information for every call that went into or out of Sonny Perdue's office last month. That's not true of many other countries.

For a quick once-over of the MP expense scandal, you can read this NYT story.

(Photo courtesy of the Daily Telegraph)

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