Tue | Sep 19, 2017

Daniel Thwaites | Transparency as clear as mud

Published:Sunday | July 31, 2016 | 7:00 AM

I suggest that the recently convened Panel on Values and Attitudes make it illegal for impressionable young children to read the newspapers. It will only corrupt them. One has to be very sophisticated to digest all the recent 'disclosures' of politicians' assets, then make the obvious comparison to the auditor general's findings on the PAJ.

The clear-eyed child could only draw one reasonable conclusion: "Forget national public service! When I grow up, I want to work in the shadowy background of a fat quasi-governmental entity where I can collect three different pensions and more gratuity than an ex-prime minister, not to mention the average hard-working peasant, gets in a lifetime of saving."

But maybe it's not so bleak for the politician after all? Let's look.

Portia just released to the public the last 10 years of financials filed with the Integrity Commission. That move was a direct response to Andrew Holness, after significant public pressure, giving a peek into his filings to a few cherry-picked people.

Initially, I had thought that Andrew had released his filings to journalists in a Robinsonian fit of transparency. Not so. He had, in fact, chosen some journalists and given them a glimpse - for how long, we don't know. But that was the extent of the 'disclosure'.

It was a sham. But the truth is that the Jamaican people seem to have decided that they don't care about it that much. As I pointed out when the Panama Papers leak was in full flood and world leaders caught with offshore companies were having lots of 'splaining to do, we have opted for a different and more elevated path than those backward First-World countries where such things cause heartburn and constipation.

But Portia has now added another chapter to the story, itself necessary preparation, it appears, for the demand that followed from the PNP that Mr Holness follow her example and lay his filings in Parliament.

I'm sure we can all continue to follow this move and counter-move strategy that is playing out as a minor subplot to the recently concluded general election. What's striking is the incredibility of what has been disclosed, and the fact that they may as well not have bothered.

 

SURPRISING NET WORTHS

 

Andrew, we are told, nets out at more than $100 million, while Portia, even if an updated evaluation, is put on her house, is worth under half that. I mean, I wouldn't go so far as to say that 'Portia bruk', but I expected her to show a significantly higher net worth, just like I expected Andrew to show something else. All of which only goes to show that my perceptions of what's going on in the world needs major retreading and refurbishing.

However, it also serves to highlight how horrible the system of disclosure is. Because what do we learn from these document dumps, even assuming what we've heard is accurate? Not much at all.

The reality is that our disclosure system is mostly useless, like a dog with rubber dentures. The integrity report requests little information from the filers, and the way that it requests the information leaves gaping holes. Add to this picture that the filing requirements for election spending are a joke, and what we have is near complete impunity.

I'm fed up with the supposed concern for 'privacy'. We have to go old-school here. You've heard about the Roman census from Luke's Gospel, where it is mentioned as the reason why Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem. Every five years in Ancient Rome, citizens had to submit to the public census and declare all details, including all the property they held. Think of how much sport that could be nowadays! All those secret accounts hiding assets from wifey or hubby for matey would fall out into the public. Actually, Jamaica would mash up, so we couldn't go that extreme. But you get the idea.

That connection with disclosure and public morals was there from the beginning, because the Roman censor was responsible for gathering information and policing public morals. And you couldn't just opt out, because if you failed to appear, you might be sold off by the state as a slave.

 

NO PRIVACY

 

Ancient Romans didn't put much of a premium on privacy. So what about the modern Rome, America? Members of Congress, candidates for federal office, senior congressional staff, and others must disclose income, honoraria, assets, transactions, gifts, travel, agreements, positions, and liabilities. The reporting is extensive. Federal lobbyists have to register and report their contacts with legislators and their staff.

There are serious arguments about whether these reporting requirements need to be improved. Should stock trades have to be reported in real time rather than just annually? How deep should the reporting requirements for congressional staff go?

As an aside, Delroy Chuck is one of my favourite politicians, but I was wondering what he was thinking or drinking last year when he mused aloud an objection to reporting gifts under half a million dollars.

"It must be a figure that would materially affect the overall assets and liability of the declarant," said Chuck, who had proposed that it be "not less than $500,000 ... . A lot of my clients know that I enjoy going to Las Vegas ... . You are going to say that I must declare a trip to Las Vegas or to London?"

Sas Crise! Lawd, forgive mi! Ahhmmm! Yes.

When I remember those things, I definitely want to see Delroy's declarations, and not because I believe they would be anything but perfectly kosher. That one is just for good old-fashioned voyeurism, known in the Queen's English as 'faas'. Because if a trip to Vegas a nuh nutten, Delroy is a real baller.

But the bigger point is that we aren't even trying to play in the league of real disclosure and transparency. Why not? Do the Jamaican people deserve less than electors anywhere else? It seems to me that the Jamaican censor, the Integrity Commission, is now proven to be rotten and wutliss. It doan have nuh use.

- Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.