Sunday, 16 November 2014

Schadenfreude - the response

As pledged on Tuesday, a longer reply to Michael’s commentary on the recent travel expense scandal (whose echoes faded quickly)

Oh what bliss it was to watch TV news on Friday evening! Earlier that day, the story broke that three PiS deputies - Adam Hofman, the party's spokesman, Mariusz Kamiński (not to be confused with the former head of the anti-corruption agency, the CBA) and Adam Rogacki - were caught flying to Madrid on Ryanair when they had all claimed expenses for driving there and back on parliamentary business.

They would have gotten away with it, had it not been for the fact that their wives, travelling with them, were drinking alcohol that they'd brought onto the plane (something forbidden by the airline), and were remonstrating aggressively with cabin staff. The in-flight fracas was brought to the attention of the tabloid press, which led to some investigative digging. This in turn resulted in some interesting facts coming to light.

The introduction deserves a referral to a brilliant editorial by Jacek Zakowski, published in the recent issue of “Polityka”. As the author points out, the scope of the problem is much deeper than one-off incident of wheedling out public money. After all, just like Mr Zakowski, I also kind of regret those guys; no matter how nefarious they were, they could not have been denied wits. Mr Hofman, remarkable for his mordant retorts, was one the cleverest representatives of youngsters (by relevant standards politicians in their 30s) in Polish politics.

Firstly, that Hofman had done this fiddle before many times over the years - claiming mileage for driving to foreign destinations on parliamentary business, yet buying tickets on low-cost airlines. The sum of 64,000 zlotys (about £12,000) has been mentioned in media reports. The other two were also discovered to have been doing this. They'd been buying the airline tickets weeks in advance of claiming for travel expenses.

I recall testimony of 53 thousand zlotys claimed during this term of parliament, but the exact amount misappropriated is of secondary importance. What comes to the forefront is that as criminal lawyers adjudicated, such contrived scheme has all features of a punishable crime. Therefore, the up-and-coming politicians will not only end up at best on the sidelines of politics, but may also face a prospect of a few years spent behind bars.

Secondly, that once at his destination, Hofman only voted six times out of the 25 parliamentary deliberations that he had ostensibly gone to attend. He'd sign his name in the register and then slip away. So rather than sticking up for Polish taxpayers' best interests, he'd be off sightseeing, at their expense.

More than surely, scale of depravity runs well beyond one-off offence and well beyond three deputies caught red-handed. The more insightful analysis of misdemeanour of the trio indicates they had engaged in the murky scheme of claiming excessive reimbursement and not attending voting sessions without inhibitions and not even trying to conceal the deceit. As Mr Zakowski argues, Mr Hofman and the likes have been spoilt by the politics to such extent that they have grown blind not to distinguish between right and wrong. Same was the case with Mr Nowak rubbing shoulders in expensive clubs and swanking outfits worth more than an average Pole’s annual salary, or with Mr Wipler who makes a martyr of himself after picking up a night-time brawl.

All the glee and schadenfreude at the political end of this slippery trio has come at a particular inauspicious time for PiS - a week before the local and provincial elections.

To his credit, Prezes Kaczyński has terminated the trio with extreme prejudice - they've been expelled from the party earlier today. Oh what bliss it was to watch the TV news this evening! Mr Kaczyński has lost his able spokesman, who always knew how to make his boss look good, just as Poland is about to vote for its mayors and provincial parliaments.

Firstly, Prezes acted firmly, but… Back last weekend, at the trio were ousted from the party, I brought back autumn of 2006, when Prezes threw Mr Lepper out of coalition and pledged not to consort with people of sullied reputation and three weeks later let Mr Lepper in through back door, only to shield parliamentary majority. So back then I thought ‘I will believe if in half a year they’re still away from the party’ any my doubts were fuelled by the track record of Mr Hofman getting away with other acts of misconduct. In my today’s perception, the odds of the three young henchmen of Mr Kaczynski winning back his favour have diminished.

Secondly, I cannot believe Mr Kaczynski had not known what sort of arrogant, cynical, coarse lout Mr Hofman was. He had put up with all of his partisan’s smaller and bigger sins just because he had needed him. The Madrid trip scandal tipped the scales and to protect credibility and integrity of his party, Prezes had to choice but to kick out Mr Hofman and cut off his wrongdoings.

Thirdly, Mr Hofman has been swapped for Mr Mastalerek, who will now serve as spokesman of the party. In comparison to his predecessor, Mr Mastalerek is more arrogant, more cynical, more aggressive, more hatred flows from his mouth, however is far less witty than Mr Hofman. The glee at disappearance of Mr Hofman from the position of media foreman of PiS seems thus premature. One day we might be missing polite Mr Hofman who, while giving an interview, could at least summon up a feigned smile.

Fun though it may have been watching PiS squirming in extreme discomfort, it is worth putting this Polish MPs expenses scandal into perspective. Do take a minute or two to see the size and scale of the 2009 UK Parliamentary Expenses Scandal. How the mighty have fallen, eh?

I'm sure that PiS deputies were not alone in this form of misbehaviour. It is evident that there were no checks in place to make sure that the money given as an advance (zaliczka) was ever accounted for later. Having worked all my life in the private sector, this is unthinkable. When I return from a business trip, I account for all my bus tickets, taxi receipts, hotel invoices etc - or I don't see my money back. That's fair. I cannot get to grips with an expenses system that's so lax that money is just handed over on trust - and that's the end of the matter.

I’m sure they trip to Madrid is just the tip of the iceberg that has come above murky waters of politics thanks to lack of foresight of politicians’ wives. Had they not felt over-confident on board of cheap airline’s plane, the scheme would carry on, at the taxpayers’ expense. In the private sector each corporation (I assume) has a business trip policy, a document which sets out a system of checks and balances that ensures travel expenses are thriftily managed. In a sound private company no one would give approval for a business trip to Madrid for three employees, each travelling by their private car (Mr Kaminski, as his wealth declaration says, does not even possess a car), because the journey takes 27 hours of continuous driving, which means the journey would take at least four days there and back and require accommodations along the way – this is a waste of time and would mean employees would be weary performing their duties in Madrid. Alternatively, one of three guys could be damn afraid of flying, then they could all go by one car and change behind the wheel, but not by three cars! Not to mention the matter of safety of air travel… The story of driving to distant Spanish capital does not hang together at first glance so in a properly functioning company such request would be declined right away. In a sound company a manager who approves business trip expenses (in advance and upon return) can be held accountable for mismanagement, if approvals are out of line with internal policies and costs are not sought to be minimised. The New Factory in its policies has the overriding goal of ensuring the lowest total cost of travel per person, including hotel expenses, which means faster means of transport might be selected if they allow to save on accommodation. The laxity of Polish parliaments procedures is inexcusable – I bet no private company’s policies would give so much room for abuse.

And the idea of flying to a conference and not taking part is equally scandalous. If the taxpayer is paying these parliamentarians to represent them internationally - that is what they should be doing.

The arrogance and complacency shown by these three deputies should, I hope, result in none of them ever holding public office again. And a thorough investigation needs to be carried out into our parliamentarians' foreign trips - how much they cost and what they accomplished.

If a really comprehensive review of politicians’ trips was to be carried out, spanning not only legitimacy of those journeys, but also expenses reimbursed, several more interesting facts could come to the light.

It is worth copying the idea of This website gives UK voters all the details about the person who represents them in Parliament. Take a look, for example, at Stephen Pound MP, who represents my parents' constituency, Ealing North. To quote something that three different visitors from the UK have said to me over the past week, 'this is what "good" looks like'. Poland needs to replicate this., anyone?

For the very – a plea on election day. I walked to the polling station, collected the ballot papers, looked at names, did not even touch the pen and threw the papers to the ballot box. Such is my displeasure with the local politicians that I deliberately cast a null vote. According to exit polls, PiS gets the edge of four percentage points over PO and will mark its first victory after seven elections in the row won by PO.

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