Thu | Aug 17, 2017

Editorial | PNP commission should continue probe

Published:Wednesday | September 7, 2016 | 9:00 AM

Were we cynical, we would interpret the People's National Party's (PNP) decision to halt the probe by its integrity commission into allegations of unreported donations and contract kickbacks as its gamble for working its way out of scandal. In other words, the party is minimising its risks, hoping, perhaps, to play a three-card trick, utilising the hands of the Office of the Contractor General.

The problem confronting the Opposition party started with that leaked report to the National Executive Council (NEC) by its treasurer Norman Horne. He complained that during the campaign for last February's general election "senior party members" collected financial contributions on behalf of the PNP, but that much of that money never reached the central treasury.

"... Only a few members reported or accounted in full, or even in part, for the receipt of these donations to the treasury or the party executive," Mr Horne claimed.

There are two major elements to Norman Horne's claim. One suggests an organisational dysfunction in the PNP; it doesn't know how to account for its money, or how to organise a campaign. But the larger and more important one is the accusation of theft by party officials; the implication is that they siphoned money intended for the PNP to their private benefit. Or that at the minimum, they used it for the party's benefit but without its consent.

Such actions are criminal acts for which people can go to prison. First, though, there have to be complainants, which, in this case, would mean either the PNP or the allegedly defrauded donors. An absence of declared victims makes this a difficult, if not impossible, case law for law-enforcement agencies to investigate.

The Norman Horne saga apart, the PNP has been roiled by that dispute between Omar Davies, the former works minister, and the party's general secretary, Paul Burke, over purported kickbacks on Chinese contracts. According to Dr Davies, Mr Burke told an NEC meeting that it was his understanding that Chinese companies, as a matter of practice, pay "agent's fees" of up to 1.5 per cent on contracts. Mr Burke complained that the PNP didn't get its share from this arrangement. While rejecting knowledge of any such practice or of the purported specific agreements, Dr Davies believes that he was implicated by the statement. He, therefore, challenged Mr Burke to deliver proof.

 

A FUTILE EXERCISE

 

Kickbacks on, and/or the award and management of government contracts are matters within the purview of Contractor General Dirk Harrison. He announced an investigation into the PNP matter. Mr Harrison's findings, if they are adverse, could lead to a criminal investigation and charges. The PNP had asked its integrity commission to conduct a broader investigation, covering all the issues, but in the wake of Mr Harrison's announcement of his own probe, froze the internal inquiry.

A possible calculation of the PNP's leadership is that Mr Harrison's review will prove a futile exercise, vindicating the previous administration of accusations of Chinese kickbacks. This would then be interpreted as a wider exculpation, including of the allegations surrounding campaign contributions. That should not be the case.

The probe by the party's integrity commission need not conflict with Mr Harrison's investigation. It should proceed unfettered, and allowed to arrive at its own conclusion, which mustn't be a whitewash.