Mon | Dec 11, 2017

Editorial | Dirk’s our nominee

Published:Monday | July 31, 2017 | 12:00 AM

We take as a good sign the fact that the Government didn't back, at the House's last sitting, the bill by which it aims to establish a single anti-corruption agency. We assume that it is engaged in a serious rethink of the problematic Clause 52, beyond the minor tinkering that Justice Minister Delroy Chuck and Attorney General Marlene Malahoo Forte believe is required.

The clause is fundamentally flawed. It has within it the opportunity for the legal entrenchment of corruption. It insists upon radical overhaul.

To be clear, this newspaper finds no fault with the primary objectives of the bill: the collapse into a single body three separate commissions that are supposed to be watchdogs against public corruption - the one dealing with parliamentarians, the other for public servants, and the third that polices the award and execution of government contracts.

The former two are ineffective. Politicians and public officials are loose with their obligations. They are rarely reprimanded, much more sanctioned, for their contemptuousness. The Office of the Contractor General (OCG) does a better job. It often conducts investigations, whose findings highlight misbehaviour that ought to be the subject of judicial proceedings.

Usually, though, follow-up is insufficient. The proposal that the new Integrity Commission has an independent prosecutor, who is not subject to the direction of anyone, has our support.

But that potentially positive development will be redundant if the agency's director of investigation, whose work will inform what the prosecutor does, has no basis on which to proceed. That is a distinct possibility in the bill now back before the House, with a slew of amendments from the Senate, but not to the matters that pose grave danger.

Under the 1983 Contractor General Act is a provision, retained in this bill, which precludes the OCG from investigating contracts dealing with defence and security. There are, of course, issues in national security for which a case can be made for secrecy. But that ought not to be an inflexible, default position.

Thirty-three years ago, transparency in governance wasn't, as it is today, a prime pillar of good governance. And it was not apparent, as it is now, that defence-related contracts were such a major force in global corruption. Politicians, bureaucrats, generals and police chiefs easily kept their constituents in the dark.

 

SEAL OF SECRECY

 

But even more egregious than this long-standing provision is a new one that would allow the Cabinet to merely place a seal of secrecy on any contract, thereby removing it from any possibility of investigation by the Integrity Commission. The Government, insofar as Mr Chuck and Mrs Malahoo Forte have indicated, wants to maintain the essence of this provision, but narrowing it slightly to certain types of contracts, including those dealing with international relations.

We believe the provision should be excised, entirely. But should these terms remain, its provision, like those dealing with defence/security contracts, must be subject to a higher bar for exemption from scrutiny. Rather than being protected by a mere assertion of the Cabinet, the Government should have to show to a judge in chambers, or a panel of judges sitting in camera, the merits of secrecy.

In the meantime, the administration should have begun to think about who should lead the new agency as its executive director, reporting to the appointed commissioners. That will be a critical job, for how this frontline person interprets his role will help to set the tone for the agency's operation. In that regard, our nominee is Dirk Harrison, the current contractor general, who has displayed the courage, strength, diligence and appreciation for law necessary for the job.