Fri | Aug 18, 2017

Legislating integrity

Published:Wednesday | February 24, 2016 | 2:00 AM
Olive Nelson

My column of Friday, February 19, 2016 incurred the wrath of a few people, including a close family member. "How could you ever write something like that in the week of an election?" And an extraordinarily perceptive reader emailed me to say that the PNP was not trying to make an 'eediat' of me, so I had already done it all by myself. Yasmin further suggested that I should stick to accounting. Such is the nature of our tribalistic existence.

In accordance with world trends, and in response to a growing suspicion that some politicians here were using their influence and power to enrich themselves illicitly, the Parliament (Integrity of Members) Act was passed in Jamaica in 1973. Under the act, politicians are required to file with an Integrity Commission statutory declarations of their assets, liabilities and income in a prescribed format by December 31 each year, but no later than March 31 of the following year. The obligation continues for 12 months after the person ceases to be a parliamentarian.

The form provided is itself quite comprehensive, listing 13 items on which the declarant should report, ranging from the acquisition and disposal of immovable property such as house and land, through bank accounts, life insurance policies, stocks and shares, and motor vehicles owned or on lease for more than two months. The declarations should be made in respect of the parliamentarian, spouse and children. If truthfully and faithfully completed, the declarations could, in fact, be useful as an indication of changes in the financial status of politicians from year to year and from their entry into Gordon House to their exit therefrom. It would also provide a mechanism through which the honest parliamentarian could affirm his/her integrity. But how well have we been served by this act and how has the Integrity Commission assisted the process?

 

CLOSELY GUARDED SECRET

 

Your editorial of Saturday, February 22, 2016 notes correctly that, in this respect, the commissioners have questions to answer. I do recall, though, that some relevant issues were raised in 2011 by a joint select committee of Parliament in its consideration of the proposed Integrity Commission Act of 2014. The proposed law was intending to merge the Integrity Commission with two other anti-corruption agencies into a single entity with prosecutorial powers.

The contribution of committee member Senator Marlene Malahoo Forte, supporting the disclosure recommendations of the bill, is particularly noteworthy. "The standard of accountability for this group (parliamentarians) should be very high," she said, "There may have been many allegations, where a parliamentarian, perhaps a minister, who has access to resources, may choose to allocate resources along the line of a spouse or contracts or things like that and they are enriched and they, in turn, are able to enjoy a certain lifestyle." (The Gleaner, December 19, 2014)

That "certain lifestyle" is what triggered the debate on the Beverly Hills house. It would be difficult to avoid a conclusion that neither the Integrity Commission nor the associated Act is performing well if, after 40 years of their existence, the public has had to continue relying so heavily on 'lifestyle' as an indicator of integrity.

In his contribution to the committee debate, Integrity Commission Chairman Justice Paul Harrison gave some insights into some of the paralytic issues confronting the commission. A loophole in the act itself was assisting declarants to avoid making full disclosures and his consistent requests for the additional staff required to conduct forensic analyses and financial investigations were not being met.

There are other deficiencies. Except for the bank account balances, no corroboration is required for the 13 line items previously mentioned. All other information was on a say-so basis. And although a certified statement of affairs would significantly improve the quality of submissions, there was no mandatory requirement for it. Under Section 4.4 of the act, it would be only necessary IF THE DECLARANT SO DESIRES.

The content of the declarations and the timeliness of the filings remain a closely guarded secret. The failure of the courts to even impose a prison sentence for the few non-compliance charges brought before it (although the act provides for it), the retention of the maximum fine at $10,000, the general weak-kneed approach to a compliance that does not allow for the detection of wrongdoing suggest that there is no serious intention on the part of anyone to change the pre-1973 status quo. For all practical purposes, compliance with this act is essentially a voluntary matter.

The Campaign Finance Act is headed in the same direction. The two major parties will be licensed to dip into the Consolidated Fund to finance their election campaigns and the only transparency we are likely to have in respect of private donations is from those who are already disclosing the information voluntarily.

In the early 1990s, many persons marshalled their cash investments into too-good-to-be-true interest rate investments, only to lose everything in the financial meltdown a few years later. Some 10 years on, the same thing happened with Olint and Cash Plus.

Electors would be well advised to apply this measure to the political offers currently before them and carefully evaluate whether they are not being set up for another scam.

On this election, day go out and vote for somebody or make a statement. A vote for an independent candidate or a spoilt vote is not a wasted vote.

- Olive Nelson is a chartered accountant. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.