President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono sought to bolster his anti-corruption credentials by ordering Indonesia authorities to look into dozens of companies allegedly linked to a tax official who amassed millions of dollars in bribes.
The dealings of Gayus Tambunan, infamously photographed at a tennis tournament on the resort island of Bali after bribing his way out of a Jakarta jail, have enraged Indonesians and sent Mr Yudhoyono’s support plummeting.
The president won re-election largely because of his clean image, but has faced fierce criticism for allegedly failing to give the Corruption Eradication Commission, or KPK, the top anti-graft agency, the backing it needed to go after high-level suspects.
In court hearings, Mr Tambunan admitted paying prison guards $40,000 to leave his cell at least 68 times. He also obtained a fake passport from immigration officials and flew to Singapore, China and Macao when he was supposed to be behind bars.
Despite a modest civil servant’s salary of roughly $1,000 a month, Mr Tambunan lived in a sprawling house with a private pool, tennis court and jogging track. Among assets seized by officials were gold bars and more than $3m in cash.
The revelations have highlighted the extent of corruption still crippling Indonesia’s government institutions more than 12 years after the fall of the military dictatorship of Suharto, the late president.
In an apparent effort to restore his public image, Mr Yudhoyono ordered law enforcement agencies to complete inquiries promptly and recover the state assets allegedly stolen by Mr Tambunan.
“If there is enough evidence of alleged wrongdoing by 149 companies, they should be formally investigated,” Mr Yudhoyono said in a televised press conference, some of his strongest comments yet on the case. He outlined a 12-point plan to counter what he has dubbed the “tax mafia”, including a greater role for the KPK.
The names of 149 companies, including three linked to the powerful Bakrie family, have come up in court hearings. The Bakries have denied claims by Mr Tambunan that they paid him millions of dollars in bribes to evade taxes.
Indonesia regularly ranks among the most corrupt countries in the world, with law enforcement and the judiciary seen as the weakest institutions. Corruption Watch Indonesia estimates at least $1.4bn in state assets has been lost between 2002 and 2008.
The KPK has successfully prosecuted dozens of politicians and government officials, but has been largely ineffective in politically sensitive cases.
In 2010, the agency was targeted by political opponents, including the now-retired deputy attorney-general and chief police investigator, who launched bogus allegations against two of its five commissioners.