Sat | Dec 3, 2016

Editorial: Politics and ethics

Published:Saturday | April 25, 2015 | 12:00 AM

When it has been confirmed that a public official has recommended 11 family members and other connected persons for contractual engagement with a local government, it may be moot that the public can find no other word to aptly describe such actions than unethical.

Contractor General Dirk Harrison, after probing the operations of the Hanover Parish Council under the leadership of then Mayor Shernet Haughton, concluded that there were instances of "nepotism, favouritism and conflicts of interest involved in the recommendations for the award of government contracts to relatives and persons affiliated with Ms Shernet Haughton".

The facts revealed that the former mayor recommended the awarding of some 22 contracts to family members and connected persons valued at $3.7 million.

We expect a public official to be a moral exemplar. But there are so many incidents that have happened in Jamaica to provide evidence of a near epidemic of unethical behaviour exhibited by both public and private officials. Rarely are they prosecuted, and convictions are even less likely to result from an arrest.

no charges will be filed

While explaining why no charges will be filed against Ms Haughton, Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Paula Llewellyn called for a review of the paltry fine of $1,000 for conviction of breaching the Public Sector Procurement Regulations.

This ridiculous $1,000 fine is less effective than a slap on the wrist or a mosquito bite. With such minor consequences for unethical behaviour, what is to deter a public official from engaging in corrupt practices? We submit that the deterrent impact is minimal, especially if one can remain firmly entrenched in Parliament or the parish council with the blessings of party supporters who just love to get government contracts.

We submit that the review recommended by Ms Llewellyn is urgently needed. When we examine the fines set in such cases, one cannot help wondering exactly what was going through the minds of lawmakers when they passed this legislation. Were they influenced by a moral belief or popular sentiment?

The fact that contracts falling below $500,000 are not given any great level of scrutiny gives leeway to a corrupt official who can ensure that the contracts to friends and relatives fall below that level. So as long as the contract is below $500,000, officials can feel comfortable to hand them out with impunity.

Even though our parliamentarians regularly and stridently talk about staving off corruption, and they do introduce incremental reforms, these are often not foolproof solutions to problems.

There are corrupt people everywhere. However, there exist from country to country varying levels of punishment for being caught in corrupt acts. A robust prosecutorial system, hefty fines and strict enforcement are some of the factors that will deter corruption. This is how good law-abiding habits form within a society as they realise that the consequences for unethical behaviour are way too painful and costly.