Thu | Dec 3, 2020

Editorial | Beyond the furore over PM’s filings

Published:Friday | August 9, 2019 | 12:00 AM

Given the potential for the ongoing controversy to impair his moral authority to pronounce on matters of public corruption, it would be welcome if, as he suggests could be the case, Prime Minister Holness releases, this week, a summary of his 2018 integrity filings.

But, as the prime minister must be aware that, of itself, will not resolve the concerns if the Integrity Commission isn’t in the position to, at the same time, place its imprimatur on the declaration, as well as report that it has finally ’cleared’ Mr Holness’ income, assets and liabilities statement for 2017.

Whatever the outcome of this process, though, the PM’s problem with his filings adds another matter beyond those raised by the Integrity Commission in its recent report that Parliament should tweak the integrity law.

Mr Holness, like all legislators and many public servants, is required, annually, to send to the Integrity Commission a statement of his earnings and other assets, as well as liabilities, for the calendar year. That report is due by the end of March in the following year. Under the updated law, passed in 2017 and covering reports for 2018, the Integrity Commission is obligated to publish, via the Gazette, summaries of these filings by the prime minister and the opposition leader.

It has been nearly a month since the Integrity Commission published those of Peter Phillips, the opposition leader, but not the prime minister’s, without any explanation for the absence of the latter’s. It is not unreasonable, in the circumstance, to assume that even if the commission was in possession of the PM’s declarations, it didn’t publish them because it wasn’t, up to then, satisfied of their accuracy. In which event, Dr Phillips’ threat to go to court for an order that the Integrity Commission fulfil its “statutory obligation” is likely to fail.

Section 42 (2) of the Integrity Commission Act requires that if the agency’s director of information and complaints believes that a filing requires further information, “he may, by notice in writing, request the declarant to submit such other information at such time as may be specified in the notice, and the declarant shall submit such information within the specified period”.

Based on our reading of the law, it is after the director “is satisfied that the declaration is duly completed” that he informs the commissioners of his determination, who then inform the filer and, in the case of the PM and opposition leader, publish summaries of their reports.

In his remarks to a reporter this week, Mr Holness conceded that he was late in filing his 2018 report but suggested that he had since fulfilled that obligation. “I am hopeful that before the week is out, the Integrity Commission will make public my declarations,” said the prime minister. “If not, I will have to possibly do it myself.”

Unresolved issues

The latter would represent a step in the right direction but not a complete exculpation of the PM if the commission still has unresolved issues with Mr Holness’ filing. And even if the commissioners are satisfied with the 2018 declaration, there is still the matter of his 2017 filings, which, in their review for that year, they said had been reviewed but not “cleared”. It is important, also, that they pronounce on the status of the 2017 declaration. The need for clarity on these matters is not to indict Mr Holness but is in furtherance of transparency and to ensure that prime ministers, too, fulfil their obligation to law. That, ultimately, is good for Mr Holness’ authority.

In the meantime, the law should be amended to specify the number of times the director of information and complaints should ask a declarant for additional information before the matter is forwarded for deeper investigation. Additionally, in circumstances where there is no clear illegality but there are unresolved questions about a declarant’s filings, the commission should be empowered to qualify the declaration, as is the case with auditors and was implied with those statements that used to be reported as ‘not cleared’.