SHE knows how to dig for dirt. As a prosecutor in Romania, Laura Codruța Kövesi helped put away sleazy politicians, including a former prime minister.
Last week, the 48-year-old become the EU’s first ‘anti-fraud tsar’. And she had a simple message: graft is everywhere. Or can be.
“There are no clean countries,” Ms Kövesi repeated in a series of interviews, trashing the myth that corruption is something which happens in Europe’s south and east, not its west and north.
The veteran crime-fighter is the first head of the new European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO), an independent body to pursue those who steal EU money. She does not face an easy start.
Last month, Ms Kövesi admitted she expected a “lot of troubles”. Why? Because the bloc is pouring billions in to pandemic recovery. And at a pace that has to be a red flag for corruption.
Covid, it has brought so much tragedy, but also so many opportunities for sleaze. Governments have had to spend a lot of money. And quickly, often without the kind checks and balances, such as competitive tendering, that help filter out graft, or even just bad value.
At Westminster, the Conservatives are facing serious questions about how associates of senior figures secured lucrative coronavirus business. And, as The Herald on Sunday revealed last weekend, the Scottish Government awarded half a billion pounds of contracts without full scrutiny.
None of this, of course, is hard-and-fast evidence of corruption. But it is a warning sign, a big, gaudy flashing neon one accompanied by a booming, skwawking, thunderous alarm bell.
Britain isn’t in the EPPO, or EU. So we don’t get the extra, transnational oversight Ms Kövesi provides, even if her office is not yet as robustly resourced and respected as she would like.
In fact, quibbles aside, Scotland and the UK don’t really have any specialist anti-corruption law enforcement at all.
They will not say this on the record, but our police and prosecutors are not remotely resourced to investigate more than a few of the procurement issues flagged up by public-sector auditors.
That does not stop our politicians pointing the finger at each other making allegations of sleaze. Instead of oversight and investigation, we get tacky, petty, internet-grade hyper-partisan patter, we get Donald Trump-style “Drain the Swamp” rhetoric, or something increasingly close to it.
In our degraded, polarised social-media-driven politics we love to talk about corruption – but only the other guys’ – but we never seem to do anything about the problem.
Take the latest concerns highlighted by this newspaper. On Saturday evening a new Conservative MSP tweeted an image of The Herald’s front page. “It seems like the best way to win Government contracts is to cosy up to the SNP.” said Stephen Kerr, a list member for Central Scotland and former Stirling MP. “Let’s take a peek behind the curtain!”
Then he added a hashtag, one usually only found being spread by the most extreme British nationalist accounts on social media: “#snpcorruption”. The story had not even been published yet. It contained no evidence or suggestion that the SNP or anybody else was actually corrupt, but rather highlighted a failure to avoid the appearance of bias in procurement.
The tweet provoked a partisan backlash from Scottish nationalists who far too frequently portray sleaze as something that slimes its way through the corridors of Westminster, not Holyrood.
Mr Kerr, went the outcry, was a hypocrite given all the evidence of bad practice coming out of his own party’s government.
Me? I thought his stance was worse than hypocritical, I thought it unethical. We all know, in our heart of hearts that corruption isn’t a problem of one party or ideology; it simply follows power, unless we are vigilant.
Pretending otherwise, turning corruption in to a party political game, is not challenging graft, it is enabling it. That #snpcorruption hashtag fails us all.
Mr Kerr may be a social media outlier in his party, but he has embraced a theme. Earlier this year, when the Alex Salmond scandal was dialled to its maximum, other right-wing social media activists turned the SNP logo on to its side to form the C of corruption.
Unionists are on the back foot, and fighting desperately to save the UK. So some might think such glib social media tactics are justifiable. They are not.
The SNP was itself a few years ago accused of “drain the swamp” rhetoric as it tried to overthrow decades of Labour rule in Scottish local government. Nationalists certainly implied there were skeletons to be found in Labour closets. That was bitterly resented. There is still bad feeling in town halls across the central belt over the tactic.
Not, of course, that there were not all sorts of scandals in Labour councils. There is a huge one in Liverpool right now. Would there be scandals under another party? Of course there would.
Multi-party politics is still a defence against corruption. Our political leaders are harder to suborn if we keep changing them. Politicians have every right to scrutinise and criticise their opponents, especially those in power. That is, after all, their job.
However, right now parties are not shielding us from sleaze in the way they should and could be. Politicians and apparatchiks obsess over whether are abiding by rules, about whether they are ‘compliant’, about whether there is some infraction their opponents can pull them up on.
They also use the rules to make vexatious, time-wasting complaints about each other, taking up vital time from auditors and standards officials who should be focusing on real graft.
This deontological stance frustrates anti-corruption campaigners.
“All political parties, their candidates and elected representatives should set their sights above simply not breaking the rules if they wish to earn the support and trust of the public,” said Alex Runswick, senior advocacy manager at Transparency International UK. “Parties of all stripes must do more to promote integrity in conduct so the first consideration becomes ‘should I be doing this?’ rather than ‘am I allowed to?’.”
Ms Runswick is talking about refusing anonymous donations, tackling dark money, being as transparent as possible. “Politicians need to start aspiring to something better than point-scoring or the next cunning wheeze to get one over on their opponents,”she concluded.
There are no clean countries, as Ms Kövesi said. There are also no clean parties. Each should get its own house in order.
Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.