By Edith Honan
NAIROBI (Reuters) - Kenya's anti-corruption commission has stepped up its investigations into alleged looting of public funds and has put two ministers in court, but its head says the judiciary needs to work harder to deliver convictions.
Kenya has a history of multi-million dollar corruption scandals that have failed to result in high-profile convictions, angering the public who say it shows how top officials act with impunity, and encourages graft by those in lower posts.
In recent months, public frustration has reached a boil over parliamentary probes into multi-million dollar government contracts, with one ministry accused of buying ballpoint pens at $85 each.
"If we get one single conviction, it will definitely transform the public perception and it will transform the activities and attitudes of public servants," said Halakhe Waqo, the head of the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC).
"One conviction will be a big milestone," he told Reuters in an interview at his office in Nairobi's Integrity Centre.
Waqo said more than 300 cases involving alleged corruption by officials are currently pending in Kenya's courts as a result of the work of his commission.
"We've really scaled it up in the past six months," Waqo said. "Where the problem is, it is at the judiciary and that is where everybody must focus."
Kenya has long stood near the bottom of Transparency International's corruption index. But demands for change are growing, in part because economic growth has created more wealthier Kenyans who are angry at those in public office squandering their taxes.
GOING AFTER "BIG FISH"
Parliament has questioned the award of government contracts, including a multi-billion dollar deal for a new railway from the coast to Nairobi, and has also challenged the whereabouts of funds raised from last year's $2 billion Eurobond.
In response, Finance Minister Henry Rotich released details of how the Eurobond cash was spent and said "there were no resources lost" from the budget. The government has also defended its contract awards.
But reports about brazen sleaze continue to stoke public fury. Parliament is investigating how one ministry spent public funds on sex toys and on ballpoint pens at $85 each, though the ministry has said the information is wrong.
President Uhuru Kenyatta said in March he would take personal charge of the fight against corruption and ordered any minister or official facing a probe to step down. But critics say he has been too quick to defend his allies.
In an unusual move, the ambassadors of the United States, Britain and nine other countries said on Thursday that Kenya faced a "corruption crisis" and they would step up efforts to prevent the flow of illicit funds out of the country.
Waqo cited court cases now pending against the ministers for land and for transport, as well as several regional governors, to show progress by the commission, which has 450 staff and a budget of 2.3 billion shillings ($22.5 million).
But the public wanted to see a "big fish" convicted. "If you have a government minister, who else are you looking for? As far as I am concerned, you can't talk of a bigger fish," he said.
Kennedy Bidali, the chief magistrate in the anti-corruption drive and the judiciary's ombudsman, said the courts were seeking to fast-track graft cases but he was unaware of any case in which an accused person was acquitted despite there being "overwhelming evidence" against him or her.
"If the evidence is strong, it will be possible to convict a so-called big fish in our courts," he said, speaking in Nairobi's Supreme Court.
John Githongo, who quit as Kenya's anti-corruption tsar in 2005 and remains a prominent whistleblower, dismissed the bickering between the EACC and the judiciary as the "same old, same old".
He said Kenya needed a clearer political strategy to fight graft, alongside the legal channels. He said prosecution was the "most blunt instrument" to deal with the problem but Waqo's commission could not chase every case of possible sleaze.
"What we don't have here is that sense of shame," he said. "People remain in office even though they have manifestly lost public confidence."
(Editing by Giles Elgood)