Government plays down EC share probe

Key government figures have shrugged off the Election Commission’s (EC) probe into nine cabinet ministers for potential conflicts of interest despite some critics claiming the EC is taking its revenge after a controversial move to reorganise its structure.

Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam, one of the nine ministers being investigated, said he believed the EC was doing its job without having a hidden agenda as some have speculated. He said the commission was merely responding to a complaint lodged with it.

The probe was decided on Tuesday when the EC reviewed a complaint lodged by Pheu Thai Party lawyer Ruangkrai Leekitwattana, who accused the nine ministers of holding shares in private companies that are awarded state contracts.

According to the complaint, this practice is in violation of the new charter and the shares in question have been declared before the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC).

The EC’s findings will be forwarded to the Constitutional Court for a ruling. If any of the ministers are found to have committed wrongdoing they will be removed from office and barred for two years.

The watchdog’s move has raised suspicion that it is seeking to exact revenge for a recent proposal to overhaul the agency.

The timing coincides with the deliberation of the proposal by the National Legislative Assembly (NLA), which is scheduled to consider an organic the bill on the EC in its second and third readings tomorrow.

Under the proposal, the five EC members, appointed under the 2007 constitution, would leave their posts when the organic bill comes into effect.

Besides Mr Wissanu, they are Finance Minister Apisak Tantivorawong, Deputy Education Minister ML Panadda Diskul, Industry Minister Uttama Savanayana, Deputy Commerce Minister Sontirat Sontijirawong, Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai, Digital Economy and Society Minister Pichet Durongkaveroj, Labour Minister Gen Sirichai Distakul, and Tourism and Sports Minister Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul.

Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak dismissed the EC’s probe as standard procedure and expressed confidence the ministers would be able to justify their actions.

“They will clarify everything. This is a normal procedure and they do not feel intimidated,” he said.

Mr Uttama said the complaint lodged by Mr Ruangkrai was not new and he had explained the issue before.

Mr Apisak said he is ready to answer the EC’s questions while insisting he has no shares in the SET-listed companies.

The finance minister also questioned whether the EC has the authority to look into cases involving alleged conflict of interest.

“When taking office the ministers must declare their assets and debts to the NACC,” he said. I don’t have any shares in the listed companies. But is it the EC’s job to look into this?” he said.

Mr Sontirat insisted he did everything by the book before taking office.

He said it was highly unlikely the EC’s investigation was prompted by the so-called resetting of its structure.

EC member Somchai Srisutthiyakorn said the EC’s legal office examined the complaint and forwarded it the commission. The watchdog was supposed to consider it on May 23 but the issue was postponed because some members were absent.

“This is not a big deal. It is the EC doing its job. When a complaint is lodged with us and there are grounds for it, we have to set up a panel to investigate,” he said.

According to Mr Somchai, the nine-member fact-finding panel is expected to complete the investigation within 60 days. The probe can be extended for 30 days each time.

He said the EC is likely to make a ruling in a few months.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha gestures at a photo-op for the cabinet at Government House. A political dispute is raging over the Election Commission’s decision to investigate nine ministers for alleged conflict of interest. (Bangkok Post file photo by Thanarak Khunton)

EC chairman Supachai Somcharoen insisted the probe had nothing to do with the proposal to “reset” the poll agency’s structure.

He said the investigation was not being carried out to pressure the government or force negotiations over the proposal.

Meanwhile, Constitution Drafting Committee chairman Meechai Ruchupan Wednesday threw his weight behind the proposal to “reset” the EC, saying this would be best for the general election that is expected next year.

Mr Meechai said the EC has more authority under the new charter and imposes stricter qualifications so it needs personnel who are qualified to do the job.

Under the new charter, the number of EC members will be increased from five at present to seven. The two new additions will be recruited under tougher criteria.

Mr Meechai said the proposal is law abiding and will not affect the election.

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