Editorial | The next logical step for Justice Harrison
When the Axis powers of Jamaican politics blitzkrieged their way over demands that the new integrity law maintain the concessions of transparency of the old Contractor General Act, they were warned that their action was likely to be to the peril of public confidence in the overarching anti-corruption agency they intended to establish.
It appears that Karl Harrison, the retired judge who chairs the Integrity Commission, harbours fears that those concerns may be coming to pass, if they haven't already done so. This week, he issued a statement effectively saying that the commission is gagged, by law, from telling its constituents, the citizens of Jamaica, what cases it has under investigation.
Specifically, as the agency's acting director of investigations, David Grey, did two months ago, he invoked Section 53 (3) of the Integrity Act that declares: "Until the tabling in Parliament of a report ... all matters under investigation by the director of investigations or any other person involved in such investigation shall be kept confidential, and no report or public statement shall be made by the commission or any other person in relation to the initiation or conduct of any investigation ... ."
"The commissioners and the staff cannot break the law for any reason," Justice Harrison said. "Hence, we will not be able to provide updates or interim reports to the public before they are tabled in Parliament."
Justice Harrison felt compelled to issue this statement in the face of public outrage at being in the dark over whether Justice Harrison and his fellow commissioners - Seymour Panton, Pamela Monroe Ellis, Eric Crawford, and Derrick McKoy - instigated probes into allegations of cronyism and naked corruption at the state-owned oil refinery, Petrojam, and other agencies under the portfolio of former Energy, Science and Technology Minister Andrew Wheatley, who was forced to resign over the scandals.
While Justice Harrison couldn't give any information, either way, about these or other investigations begun by the old contractor general, he said the commissioners understood and expected the interest by the public in the activities of the commission and people's expectations "that matters under the commission's purview are being pursued with vigour and dispatch".
LACK OF TRUST
That people wish to know isn't merely to satisfy curiosity. It goes to the larger issue of trust, or lack thereof. Jamaicans have little confidence that their institutions will, as a matter of course, do the right thing. Hence their demand for transparency, to which Justice Harrison seems sympathetic, as he should be.
An astute man, and given the inefficacy of two predecessor agencies - those that dealt with parliamentarians and civil servants - he no doubt appreciates the cynicism with which Jamaicans view his Integrity Commission and what it has to do to gain their confidence.
That effort is more difficult if people believe politicians fashioned the law in a way to shield a privileged class from the starkest scrutiny, which, sometimes is a more effective deterrent to bad behaviour than the penalty of law.
If Justice Harrison does, indeed, share the sentiment we perceive him to have, he should make it plain in his public remarks and in the annual report he will be required to submit to Parliament after the commission's first year of operation. He must recommend that that element of the law be amended.
Further, as part of building intolerance to corruption, in which Jamaicans believe up to 90 per cent of public officials are engaged, Justice Harrison should, as is part of his mandate under Section 6(1) (m) of the act, cause the commission to "compile and publish statistics relating to the investigation, prosecution and conviction of offences relating to acts of corruption".
A reading of the law doesn't suggest that this data be limited to matters undertaken by the Integrity Commission or to any specific period. It can span any period, say, over the last two decades. It can be got on with now.