Monday, February 2, 2009

Accountability across the board

Accountability across the board

Posted By Staff On February 2, 2009 @ 5:01 am In Editorial | 4 Comments

As the Sunday Stabroek editorial of January 25th noted, President Jagdeo’s ultimatum on January 19th that MPs deliver up returns to the Integrity Commission in two weeks was quite puzzling and as time ticks by it seems it was a fit of pique prompted by the PNCR’s jibe that a forensic scrutiny of finances should apply not only to customs officers.

Whatever his motivation, President Jagdeo was clearly out of order and his administration is now attempting to retrieve the situation aided by responsible and mature responses by the Parliamentary opposition.

Let us be crystal clear here. The entire country wants to see accountability to the highest degree but it wants to see it across the board and relative to every single public official. It dosen’t want President Jagdeo to cherry-pick which of the public officials should be held accountable.

If President Jagdeo’s demarche on the MPs was to have credibility the net should have been cast far wider. The President could have said that in light of the PNCR’s call he would enquire from the Integrity Commission whether each and every one of the public officers falling under its jurisdiction including the opposition MPs had filed their respective returns and if they weren’t he would urge the Commission to take the necessary steps. Even that would have been too heavy-handed as this commission is intended to function independently of any direction but at least the public would have been more sympathetic.

The more telling point is that if the Integrity Commission had been functioning there would have been no need for President Jagdeo to even trouble himself with this ill-considered ultimatum. The Commission would have been receiving reams of returns, would have been convening inquiries of various types and would have been tendering the relevant reports to the Office of the President so that President Jagdeo would have been well aware of the extent of compliance.

Clause 19 of the Act says that where a person within the ambit of the Act fails to file a declaration or to furnish particulars, the Commission or the President as the case may be shall publish the fact in the Official Gazette and in a daily newspaper. In the 11 years that the Commission has been in existence it is unclear if this has ever been done. It is a remarkable record. Dozens of public officials have apparently complied scrupulously with the tenets of the legislation. It is more likely the case that public officials have paid very little attention to the Commission and that in its state of suspended animation the Commission has not bothered to fuss over it.

Under Clause 22, defaulters are liable to prosecution but there is no evidence that the necessary processes have been pursued for charges to be brought. Remarkable indeed.

Clause 30 permits the Commission on the receipt of compelling complaints from members of the public to initiate public sittings to hear arguments. None has been convened as far as we can tell.

Because we are a society filled with persons prone to offering inducements, Clause 32 sets out what public officials must do in relation to gifts they receive. The Commission has the authority to order that gifts deemed to be inducements be delivered to the minister with responsibility for finance. Again there is no evidence of this and if the Commission had been functioning energetically the President would have been in possession of the various reports.

But that has not been the case and the person who has to be blamed for it is President Jagdeo. The Commission was simply not operating at an adequate level. The Chairman, Bishop George, had tendered his resignation two years ago. How could this small body properly function without a Chairman? Any why did the President not attempt to find a new candidate in the last two years? Clause 5 (2) of the Integrity Commission Act says simply that “The Chairman or any other member may resign by letter addressed to the President”. Matter finished. Whether the Chairman had been bullied out of the position as President Jagdeo contended is immaterial. President Jagdeo’s obligation was to get cracking on finding a replacement.
Interestingly consultations have suddenly been held between PM Hinds, performing the functions of President, and the Opposition Leader Mr Corbin on two new candidates. This consultation with the Opposition Leader should have been done a long time ago and might have rendered unnecessary the long-delayed case that was brought by the PNCR against the old Integrity Commission.

One wonders though whether this consultation is adequate and would be immune to legal challenges in the future as it was not held by President Jagdeo. Whatever the outcome, we hope that the appointments of the new members of the Commission will comply with the requirements set out in the Act. The only other reservation would be why go through this exercise if there is to be a total revamping of the Commission in line with the Bradford report as pointed out by the AFC. Is this report another example of the wasteful consultancies funded by multilateral institutions that the government still indulges and then criticizes conveniently? Before the recomposing of the Commission is finalized the government and Parliament need to be very clear about the Bradford Report and what has been agreed.

And we shouldn’t stop at the Integrity Commission. The President has a knack for making the right noises about some accountability mechanisms while ignoring others or working against them. In the middle of the dolphin export scam, this administration hounded out from office the best Auditor General the country had seen in a while so that it could prevent any embarrassing disclosures about this case. Why the Presidential advisor who was ensnared in the dolphin business was not immediately banished from any role in public life remains unclear.

Further, the ruling party has stood in the way of the appointment of the critical Public Procurement Commission which is intended to oversee the channelling of contracts worth billions of dollars through the National Procurement and Tender Administration Board. Why has this government been so cavalier about this?

Are the President and his government interested in exposing and prosecuting the networks of drug dealers that have given this country a notorious image for sending cocaine abroad in all manner of items? If so why then has the anti-money laundering legislation never been used and why has the Financial Intelligence Unit not functioned robustly?
Is the President really interested in probing the rampage of the death squads and the people who financed them? Is he interested in holding his government fully accountable for what happened during this period?

Finally, the most productive way to ensure transparency across the board is to empower the average citizen to police their governors and public officials. Is President Jagdeo now prepared to support the straight-forward but effective Freedom of Information legislation that has been lying in Parliament for too long or will his acolytes barefacedly tell the House that the country is not ready for it as they did on the recent motion for live, unedited broadcasts of Parliamentary proceedings?

If the President is serious about ensuring accountability and transparency in this country there are myriad areas for him to act and to act decisively.

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