Law lecturer Saldi Isra was little known outside the confines of his university three years ago when he first asked the government of his province, West Sumatra, for a copy of its budget.
Officials were reluctant to hand one over, but when they did, the soft-spoken teacher said, he was aghast to see how legislators were rewarding themselves. They had raised their pay and perks twelvefold, spending more money on each of their pensions than on a veteran professor's entire salary.
He noticed that legislators who could once barely afford a motorbike were suddenly buzzing around the provincial capital, Padang, in luxurious vans. Some who had not even known how to work a cell phone were now brandishing top-of-the-line Nokias, he said.
With information like this in hand, Isra, 36, the son of a rice farmer from a remote village, rose to become one of Indonesia's top graft busters, rallying his community to challenge local officials. His campaign ultimately set in motion corruption investigations from one end of the country to the other, targeting hundreds of legislators and council members in more than 65 provinces, districts and cities.
The extent of the graft being unearthed is jarring even by the standards of Indonesia, a country ranked by the research group Transparency International as among the most corrupt in the world. But even more unusual is how community activists, whose complaints of corruption had left police and prosecutors unmoved for more than 30 years of authoritarian rule, suddenly have many local officials on the run.
In West Sumatra, located about 550 miles northwest of the capital Jakarta, Isra's law students and hundreds of their supporters have repeatedly marched on the capitol. Merchants offered protesters free rice and soft drinks. Businessmen chipped in to pay for leaflets. Local newspapers put the story on the front page day after day.
Buoyed by the public outrage, the provincial prosecutor overcame his admitted fears about tackling West Sumatra's power brokers and hauled them into court. Then in May the unimaginable happened: A local judge convicted 43 of the 55 provincial legislators on charges of misappropriating about $710,000 and sentenced them to prison for up to 27 months. They remain free pending appeal.
"It's extraordinary. We never imagined that an Indonesian court would have the courage to punish almost all the members of a legislature," Isra said with a broad smile. "This courage spreads out everywhere. It has a snowballing effect."
The proliferation of movements like Isra's was a side effect of Indonesia's move to shift power and revenue from the central government to the regions after the 1998 ouster of President Suharto, who had ruled the country for three decades.
In 2001, the central government in Jakarta handed regional authorities responsibility for most public services, reassigned about two-thirds of civil servants to local control and increased the local government share of public spending from 8 percent to 32 percent, the World Bank reported.
But the initiative also redistributed the Suharto government's corruption, planting what Teten Masduki, head of Indonesia Corruption Watch, called "little dictators" across the archipelago.
The abuses of the central government had often been difficult to spot, including payoffs that barely left a paper trail, Masduki said. Regional corruption, however, frequently takes the form of local budget abuses that are more visible to community activists.
In Padang's city council, for instance, members claimed fake expenses for cell phone bills, greeting cards for the Muslim festival of Eid al-Fitr and more than $100,000 worth of airplane tickets, prosecutors say.
"By decentralizing economics and politics around the country, you broke up corruption into smaller bits" that nongovernmental organizations and prosecutors are able to handle, said Douglas E. Ramage, Asia Foundation representative in Indonesia. "Real deal reformers are finding traction once the system was decentralized."
When Isra was a star law student at Padang's Andalas University in the 1990s, the issue was Suharto's dictatorship and Isra led the charge on campus. Shortly after the president was toppled, Isra won a rare slot for graduate study in public administration in Malaysia. He returned to a democratic Indonesia a year later to find that, for the first time, West Sumatra was electing its legislators. But many were the same officials who once did Suharto's bidding.
By 2001, Isra was growing alarmed that legislators were enriching themselves. Their new wealth contrasted with the simple life Isra and his wife still lead in a small rented home that is sparsely furnished except for wooden bookshelves heavy with Indonesian and English texts on law and politics.
Isra took the legislature to court for what he said were irregularities in its 2001 annual budget. The judge dismissed the case for lack of evidence.
Isra regrouped. When the legislature drafted its 2002 budget, he and his fellow activists recruited development experts and fellow law professors to scrutinize the document. The review, he said, found that the legislators had inflated their pay and benefits, even awarding themselves housing allowances so they could refurnish their homes, including new spring beds and vanities.
One legislator resigned in protest over the spending and supplied Isra's group with inside information.
Armed with these arguments, Isra demanded that the legislators revise the budget. They refused.
He then asked the provincial governor to refrain from signing it. He refused.
Isra appealed to the national interior minister to block the budget. He also refused.
But Isra found an eager audience among local newspapers and broadcast media, which were staking out an active role in the post-Suharto era. Week after week, he wrote opinion articles -- he still keeps copies pasted into lined scrapbooks -- and passed along the latest twists in the probe to local reporters.
"Every time we put it on the front page, our paper sold out," said John Edward Rhony, a veteran legislative reporter for the Haluan newspaper.
Students from four area universities joined the fray. Hundreds paraded through the streets of Padang demanding an official investigation. They hung a 30-yard-long petition with thousands of signatures along the fence surrounding the capitol and draped a banner reading "Nest of Corruption" across the white columns at the entrance.
Rebuffed at the provincial and national level, Isra and his fellow activists asked the chief prosecutor of West Sumatra, Mochtar Arifin, to bring charges against the legislators. But for several months, this request also met with silence.
"We had to be very careful to act," Arifin said. "We knew from the beginning it would be very difficult because the legislators had the power and influence to try stopping the legal process."
Under public pressure to proceed, Arifin moved ahead with the investigation, drawing angry denunciations from the legislators and telephone threats, apparently from their backers.
Masfar Rasyid, the legislature's deputy chairman, was the most outspoken defender of the members' spending, arguing that the pay increases were long overdue. In an interview, he called the prosecution a vendetta by politicians in the central government upset with the legislature's independence. "The law says clearly that we are the ones who have the full authority to set the budget as we like," he said.
When the case finally came to trial last year, the courtroom overflowed with spectators, while Isra ensured that dozens of students continued rallying just outside.
In May, when a Padang district court judge found 43 council members guilty, he handed down unprecedented jail time and ordered them to repay the misused funds. The corruption cases of seven other legislators who were active military and police officers were turned over to a military court for trial.
A week ago, Arifin was promoted to deputy attorney general of Indonesia and transferred to Jakarta. Isra said he was also offered posts at several prominent institutions in Jakarta, but declined.
"If people with potential always move to Jakarta, in the end the regions will never develop," he explained. "I see the need to empower the local people."
Special correspondent Noor Huda Ismail contributed to this report.