Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Kittirat Na-Ranong should feel relieved now he has been cleared of any ethical misconduct by the Office of the Ombudsman over the "white lie" he told about export forecasts over a year ago.The ombudsman gave Mr Kittirat a clean bill of ethical health on Sept 13 after a year-long investigation. The ruling was not made made public until Thursday, announced by the office spokesman Raksegecha Cheechai.Why did it take the ombudsman’s office 20 days to make public its ruling, which should be a good news for Mr Kittirat in particular? The case was taken to the ombudsman by the Green Political Group, which accused Mr Kittirat of a breach of ethical conduct for lying about the country’s export forecast last year.
The deputy prime minister publicly admitted that he had to tell a "white lie" sometimes about export figures, in order to bolster the confidence of exporters.
He said that the export growth forecast for last year was 15%, while knowing that it was not achievable. The government later lowered the figure to 9%.In the course of the investigation, Mr Raksegacha said, the office had invited Mr Kittirat and representatives of the Thai Bankers Association, the Board of Trade and the Federation of Thai Industries to testify.The ombudsman's spokesman said all the relevant private agencies agreed their businesses were not affected by Mr Kittirat’s little lie -- because they had their own economic estimates and did not rely solely on the government’s figures.So when as no damage was done, then Mr Kittirat did not break any ethical code of conduct, or so it was concluded by the ombudsman’s office. In other words, any minister or politician can now lie whenever he or she feels like it and walk free so long as no one is hurt as a direct consequence.Do I get it right, about the message from the ombudsman?If that is right, it seems that the Office of the Ombudsman has its own credibility problem to deal with. To begin with, its focus on the damage factor as the key indicator to determine whether Mr Kittirat committed ethical misconduct or not, is not the right approach. This does not take into account the intangible damages, such as the credibility of the Finance Ministry and the government, as evident in opinion polls regarding the "white lie" issue.The private sector's testimony to the ombudsman’s inquiry that they do not rely solely on the government’s economic forecasts should provide a clue about how they view the government’s figures.The ombudsman’s ruling may be a relief for Mr Kittirat, but but whether it helps restore his credibility in the eyes of the public is another question. Worse still, the Office of the Ombudsman may have to worry about its own credibility.