Thu | Sep 21, 2017

Editorial | Insulating the contractor general

Published:Wednesday | March 15, 2017 | 3:00 AM

Parliamentarian Ian Hayles' attempt to obtain an injunction to block the tabling in the House of a report of an investigation by Contractor General Dirk Harrison into a scheme that involved the Western Hanover member of parliament (MP) seems, on the face of it, a legally curious move, which, if successful, will likely undermine the value of any such oversight body against corruption.

Perhaps, first, though, we should make it clear that we respect Mr Hayles' right, as we would that of any other Jamaican, to avail himself of any protection and to ask the court to review the behaviour of any institution of the State, including the Office of the Contractor General (OCG). In this circumstance, there are likely to be questions about the merit of the intervention he has sough,t and maybe suggestions that he has been premature.

The contractor general is a commission of Parliament tasked by law to investigate, if he deems necessary, how government contracts have been awarded and/or executed. In that role, he has the powers of a judge to command the attendance and examination of witnesses and for production of documents.

 

LIMITS OF INVESTIGATIONS

 

Further, at Section 17 of the act, the contractor general is empowered to use "whatever procedures he considers appropriate to the circumstance of a particular case", as well as the "right to obtain information from such persons and in such a manner, and to make such enquiries as he thinks fit". The limits of the OCG's investigations relate to Cabinet discussions, national-security matters and issues that would impact Jamaica's relations with other states.

There are a number of other relevant factors about reports by the contractor general. They are laid in Parliament, and if he thinks it is in the public interest, he can publish them. Further, if his comments are fair and accurate, they enjoy privilege from defamation.

These protections make sense if the office is expected to be a robust guardian against public corruption, unintimidated in the face of power, political or otherwise.

Mr Hayles, apparently, has been among the subject of a probe by the OCG into the construction of a quasi-public building in his constituency, apparently without the formal approval of the municipal authority. The findings have been sent to Parliament but not yet formally tabled.

 

PROFOUND CONSTITUTIONAL MATTER

 

Last week, the MP tabled a series of questions in Parliament relating, he said, to the contractor general's probe of a construction company, in which he implied that illegal acts may have been committed, including the interception of telephone, email and social-media accounts; collusion between the OCG and domestic politicians; and unauthorised cooperation with foreign governments.

Then this week, Mr Hayles went to court to prevent Mr Harrison from sending his report to Parliament, but is having to enjoin the House speaker and Senate president since the report is already in their possession.

Apart from whether Mr Harrison operated within the law, there is a profound constitutional matter at issue, given the legislature's power at Section 48 of the Constitution, to, by law, "determine the privileges, immunities of the two Houses of Parliament and the members thereof", including Mr Hayles. Mr Harrison's office is a commission of one of those Houses.

Further, it would seem to this newspaper that Mr Harrison will have had to have engaged in an egregious breach of the Contractor General Act to despoil the public-interest right of Jamaicans to his report.