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TRANSPARENCY

Ask me no questions... governance law retains right to hide expenses

'Negative silence' response leaves disclosure up to individual public bodies

All members of the Spanish lower house without an official car get a credit card that allows them to spend up to 3,000 euros a year on taxis. Deputies are under no obligation to justify these trips, nor is it possible to know whether any of them return part of the money at year's end. Although the exact amount set aside for this purpose is unknown, it is encoded into congressional rules.

The Standing Committee, the house's internal management body, refuses to reveal the details of official trips paid for with taxpayers' money.

The Constitution sets out citizens' right to information, but public agencies are all too often extremely uncooperative. By citing other laws or simply saying "we don't have that information," it becomes very complicated, if not downright impossible, to know how our money is being spent.

The government has created a draft Transparency Law forcing public institutions to make information about contracts, subsidies, financial aid, annual programs and organizational charts publicly available. On unveiling the first draft in the spring, Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría announced that "the law will restore credibility to public administration." But by including 'negative silence' as an accepted response to any request for information, without so much as explaining the reasons why, the law leaves it up to each public body to decide whether it wants to release information that is currently secret. The following are a few examples.

The Constitution sets out citizens' right to information, but public agencies are all too often extremely uncooperative

The website tuderechoasaber.es (yourrighttoknow), which collects citizen requests for information, shows that there was no reply to the petition to disclose the cost of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's trip to the European Championship match in Poland the day after it emerged that Spain would be requesting a bailout.

Neither did anyone clear up how much was spent on an audit commissioned by the regional government of Galicia; the report concluded that merging regional savings banks would bring profits from the first year; instead, the resulting lender has received a public injection of six billion euros to prevent total bankruptcy.

In Valencia, the Generalitat vetoed a question about public contracts awarded to a company that, according to Esquerra Unida, is managed by "a close friend" of a regional commissioner.

In New York, by comparison, even surgeons' track records are a matter of public knowledge. In Spain it would be unthinkable to try to access the record of medical professionals working in the public health system.

A normal citizen cannot find out how public money is spent?"  "No," was the succinct reply.

The Spanish government also conceals administrative information that should be readily available according to public administration legislation, which stipulates that "all citizens" have the right to access registers and documents stored in administrative files.

Even so, nobody knows how much individual soccer clubs owe the tax agency (only a global figure has been released), or who owes the Social Security system the most money, or which local governments have applied for which public loans. The official cars in use at each ministry, the wages of participants in televised debates and the salaries of star hosts of public television shows also appear to be top secret material. The extensive real estate assets in the power of public agencies are not even inventoried.

Since all documents at the Foreign Ministry were at one time considered classified information, it is not possible to know what Spain's relations with China, Japan or the Philippines were like between 1975 and 1982, or what kind of support Spanish companies received to be awarded the building project for the high-speed rail service to Mecca.

In Andalusia, which is ruled by the Socialists and the United Left, the rate of civil servant absenteeism is unknown. In the Basque Country, if contracts, budgets and technical reports were public, perhaps the bad management of the Balenciaga Museum, which started out with a five-million-euro budget and ended up costing 20 million, could have been avoided.

"A normal citizen cannot access [information on] how public money is spent?" a judge asked a high-ranking Valencian official a few weeks ago, while investigating a corruption case. "No," was the succinct reply.

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