OPINION
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Dinosaur graveyard

Spain's Audit Court is a toothless watchdog where old hands go to enjoy the perks

Can you imagine a control agency which, technically, is not controlled by anyone, and does not control anything? Yes, the word useless comes to mind.

Spain's Audit Court (Tribunal de Cuentas) has been pending a renewal of its members for 18 months. The Popular Party (PP) and the Socialists (PSOE) had agreed to meet and replace them by June 30, but nothing has since been heard of any such meeting. The audit councilors are 12 in number, elected half by the Congress and half by the Senate, from among chartered accountants, judges, lawyers, economists and so on, of recognized competence and at least 15 years professional activity.

The Constitution and other laws define the Audit Court as the supreme supervisory body for accounts and the economic management of the state, with jurisdiction over questions of accounting responsibility. It also supervises the finances of the political parties and their electoral campaigns. Though not a parliamentary organ, it depends directly on the parliament.

So much for the theory. In fact it is an institution which enjoys a high degree of formal independence, and which thus ought to be wholly technical in nature. However, as explained in the report on institutional integrity in Spain prepared by the anti-corruption organization Transparency International (TI), the court's strings are pulled by the two major parties, "who could not allow a body of this importance to remain outside their control." Though it has sufficient resources and trained personnel, its impact as a watchdog is found to be "merely perfunctory in nature." This supreme supervisory body has never taken any action at all in questions of indebtedness or public deficit. It might have proposed the dismissal of administrators, but has never done this either.

Can you imagine a control agency which is not controlled by anyone, and does not control anything? Yes, the word useless comes to mind"

The control of its internal expenditure is entrusted to an auditor - appointed or removed by a plenary session of the councilors themselves.

One of its most useless activities is the supervision of the finances of the political parties. The banking industry finances the (parliamentary) parties with loans, which it never reclaims. But nothing ever happens. And why? Well, because it is a rule of the house that in reports on party funding there must be opinions by two members, one of the PP and one of the PSOE. The best way to avoid surprises is to prevent them.

The TI report notes that financial supervision of the parties is very scant as regards income from private sources, and incomplete regarding public ones. For adequate control to be exerted, the legal lacunae would have to be filled, and an independent supervisory body created. "An improvement in this area would be essential in the struggle against corruption," it concludes. The court, the report adds, ought to perform annual audits on the cost-effectiveness of public bodies, and remedy the chronic delay in the reports it does actually produce.

The councilors have no obligatory retirement age or limit to the number of mandates they serve, and the Audit Court has become an yearned-after graveyard for dinosaurs. Ubaldo Nieto de Alba, 81, has been a councilor for 30 years; Juan Velarde, 85, for 20; Ciriaco de Vicente, 75, for 21; Rafael Corona and Manuel Nuñez, both 78, for 10 years. If re-elected, these members might serve until the ages of 90, 94, 85, 88 and 88, respectively.

Picasso said it: "You begin to feel young at 60, but by then it's too late."

In times of crisis, they receive 112,000 euros annually, plus a seniority bonus, an official car, two secretaries and 6,000 euros per year for "protocol expenses." Not bad work if you can get it. Noel Clarasó said that "the best way to cope with a problem is by not trying to dodge it."

Is it not high time someone opened the windows, and aired out the stifling interior of this dinosaur graveyard?

Twitter: @TxetxoY

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