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Editorial: Loophole misuse of campaign money

Published:Tuesday | January 26, 2016 | 12:00 AM

Hardly anyone, and certainly not this newspaper, would be surprised that even as they are forced to respond to pressure to reform their behaviour, the Gangs of Gordon House would seek to create loopholes through which they might weasel their way out of solemn undertakings.

Take the case of the campaign-finance legislation that was approved by the Senate last week and which is now destined to return to the House for the final touching up after the few amendments proposed by the Upper House during its debate. Before that bill reached legislators, it was, as is customary with election laws, subject to the consensus at the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ), on which the two major political parties are represented. The convention, in such event, is that bills are passed unchallenged by Parliament.

This time, however, MPs, led by the People's National Party's AndrÈ Hylton, questioned the J$10-million cap that candidates would be allowed to spend on their election campaigns. As happens when it comes to spending money in an effort to hold on to office, Mr Hylton found bipartisan support on this matter. The upshot: After a minimum of arm-twisting, the ECJ acceded to a 50 per cent increase in the spending limit to J$15 million.

Now, it has emerged that while another flaw, previously missed by most analysts, was caught in the Senate, the gangs wished to do nothing about it. It was a flaw by design; they wanted it that way.

Section 52 BB of the proposed amendment to the Representation of the People Act makes clear that campaign donations received by candidates are to be used precisely for that purpose, to finance their election campaigns, "and shall not be used for any personal, family or business expenses". This is as it is in other jurisdictions that have introduced campaign-finance legislation. When it happens, people are subject to criminal prosecutions, as happened in the United States to former presidential candidate John Edwards, as well as former congressman Jesse Jackson Jr and his wife, Sandi, who have just been given staggering jail terms.

 

NO CONSEQUENCE FOR PERSONAL USE

Although using campaign donations for personal and business expenses will breach Jamaica's proposed law, it will not be a criminal offence, although, as governing PNP Senator K.D. Knight observed; it would be "tantamount to by false pretence".

"It is a criminal act," he said.

But it is one for which there will be no direct consequence, except, perhaps, based on the convulsion of the justice minister that the breach would mean that a candidate would not be able to receive a good-conduct certificate, required if he were to recoup, if that system was in place, up to 40 per cent of his campaign expenditure.

We believe that this flaw should be fixed in the House of Representatives when the bill returns there, although we do not expect the Gangs of Gordon House to do the right thing. If they don't, we urge the electoral authorities to use whatever tools are available to go after the crooks, including, possibly Section 52 BC of the bill, which makes it an offence for any person to knowingly make a false statement in any report filed to the commission. In such an event, a person can be fined J$3 million, and, if they don't pay, be jailed for a year.