Sun | Aug 20, 2017

Do we have a whistle-blower?

Published:Friday | September 2, 2016 | 9:00 AM

That graft and kickbacks and influence-peddling have been a customary feature in Jamaican politics has long been suspected. Government willingness to approve obviously environmentally damaging projects, and the haste to regularise egregious environmental breaches, have led many to wonder about sweetheart arrangements. The indecent haste to pass legislation decriminalising ganja, amending the copyright law without proper consultation, and promises to re-examine the 'buggery law', have bred suspicions of side payments and under-the-table financial incentives.

The reluctance of both political parties and their private-sector allies to support airtight campaign-finance reform legislation has led many - including myself - to conclude that none of the above really want transparency in political financing and an end to influence-peddling; for them, the present corrupt system works quite well, thank you!

The difficulty facing those wishing to bring the system to an end has been the lack of hard evidence and the absence among the political and private-sector actors of whistle-blowers with an abiding moral drive to expose the corrupt underbelly of Jamaican politics. The Jamaican bank teller who blew the whistle on the Trafigura donation to the People's National Party (PNP) - an action illegal in the Netherlands - lost her job, and the lack of cooperation from the PNP with Dutch investigators - and blatant obstructionism - has stalled the case in the Jamaican courts.

 

CODE OF SILENCE

 

When in 2009, the British firm Mabey and Johnson pleaded guilty in a British court to bribing officials in Jamaica and other countries to win bridge-building contracts, Jamaican law-enforcement authorities showed little interest in getting at the truth. That case died a natural death when one of the main suspects passed away.

The reticence of the Jamaican law enforcement system about political corruption, and its obvious reluctance to forensically investigate it, backed by the lack of political will (today fi yuh, tomorrow fi mi!), has earned Jamaica a bad reputation internationally. Even church-affiliated politicians seem to obey the code of silence surrounding political corruption. It seems that only when foreign law enforcement gets involved is any headway made in investigating the involvement of Jamaican political gangs in drug dealing, gunrunning, and lottery scamming.

Maybe now the tide has turned. In-fighting within the PNP has led to accusations from highly placed party officials that kickbacks allegedly obtained by the PNP from large Chinese firms have not been turned over to the central party treasurer. Their problem is not that kickbacks have been accepted (which is a criminal offence), but that they have not been shared with the rest of the party hierarchy (which is a serious party offence).

On 29 July 2011, China Communications Construction Company, wholly owned by the Chinese government, and all its subsidiaries, was barred by the World Bank from participating in any project funded by them until 12 January 2017 because of "fraudulent practices" during a Philippines roads project. As part of its development programme, the World Bank has been working with the Government of China on strengthening its approach to dealing with governance and corruption. In 2009, the World Bank "recognised and appreciated" that China's National People's Congress amended the country's criminal law to make it an offence for Chinese companies and Chinese nationals to bribe foreign government officials.

China Harbour Engineering Corporation (CHEC), which has worked on several infrastructure projects in Jamaica, is a wholly owned subsidiary of China Communications Construction Company.

 

NATIONAL SIGNIFICANCE

 

Even though to date there is no documentary evidence that any money from any Chinese firm working in Jamaica has passed to any Jamaican government official or their agent, the charge must be investigated. This is no longer an internal party matter, but an issue of national and maybe even international significance.

The allegation is that the PNP, while in government, was being funded - in part - by kickbacks from government contracts awarded to foreign firms. The truth or otherwise of this allegation must be thoroughly investigated, for it may involve criminal charges.

The question is, who should do the investigation? Every possible player in the alleged kickback scheme has vociferously pleaded total innocence. Should the PNP internal corruption mechanism investigate itself and pronounce no wrongdoing by any party official? That would not be credible. Clearly, an independent investigation is called for, maybe by an agency external to Jamaica.

Hopefully, this campaign-financing scandal will force the PNP, the JLP and the private sector to scrap the wholly inadequate legislation passed earlier this year, and preparation of a new, air-tight campaign finance act be undertaken.

- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and human-rights campaigner.