Sun | Aug 9, 2020

Editorial | A good day for good governance

Published:Thursday | October 10, 2019 | 12:00 AM

We don’t know if former education minister Ruel Reid and the persons arrested yesterday are guilty of the corruption charges that have been levelled against them. That, or their innocence, will, ultimately, be determined by a court of law.

The arrests, however, represent a vindication of the work of Parliament’s Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC) and underline why its structure, and those of other key parliamentary committees, ought not be easily trifled with. They also remind of the need to fast-track the establishment of the Major Organised Crime and Anti-Corruption Agency (MOCA) and the Financial Investigations Division (FID) as truly standalone, independent, law-enforcement agencies.

When Prime Minister Andrew Holness fired Mr Reid in March over matters that were supposedly in the public domain, Jamaicans, except those with exclusive access to the underlying information, were left to guess at the reasons. The speculation was that it had something to do with malfeasance, in particular breaches of his fiduciary responsibilities.

As it turned out, it was the PAAC, at its hearings – as was the case with the scandal at the Petrojam oil refinery – that alerted Jamaicans to the potential scale of the matter and of how badly awry things seemed to have gone at the education ministry and some of its agencies, especially the Caribbean Maritime University (CMU). It dribbled out at those hearings that Mr Reid may have siphoned, to his and his family’s personal benefit, money raised for the advancement of education in Jamaica and that the CMU may have awarded contracts to politically connected individuals for the furtherance of Mr Reid’s political career.

The upshot: the arrest of Mr Reid; his wife, Sharen Reid, and their daughter, Sharelle Reid; the CMU’s president, Fritz Pinnock; and one of St Ann’s local government councillors, Kim Brown-Lawrence.

It may well be that all this information would have come to light and the arrests done even without the intervention of the parliamentary committees. We have not called into question either the competence or integrity of MOCA or the FID. Nonetheless, there is no gainsaying the importance of the transparency the PAAC brought to the process.

There are those who believe that investigations of this kind are better conducted in the quiet and out of the view and constant attention of the public. So, the oversight of the PAAC, and other parliamentary committees, was deemed a distraction. We disagree.

The greater likelihood is that the scrutiny concentrated investigative minds without the overreach or intimidation that might have undermined professionalism. Indeed, the complaints of the political Opposition notwithstanding, this, for an intense and complex case, must be among the fastest ever done in Jamaica, which, no doubt, has limited the cynicism that often attends cases in which public officials, and the well-connected, are the accused.

This indirect pressure on the investigation mightn’t have been there if, as used to be the case, the PAAC, and others among Parliament’s key oversight committees, weren’t, since the JLP’s Bruce Golding instituted the change in 2008, chaired by opposition members. A government chair of the PAAC may have been inclined to avoid the discomfort and embarrassment the hearings caused the administration. The public must, therefore, continue to resist any effort, such as was attempted by the Government at the start of the life of this Parliament, to revert the chairmanship of all committees to members of the parliamentary majority.

Further, although MOCA, by law, is to be spun off from the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) as a separate investigative and law-enforcement body, the delay in completing the enabling regulations has kept it attached to the JCF. MOCA has, thus far, remained uninfected by the virus of corruption that ravages the regular police force. We, however, worry about how long the inoculation will last. Additionally, the FID, which investigates financial crimes and is formally ensconced in the finance ministry, doesn’t have statutory powers of arrest. It should be provided with such powers in law.

In the event, yesterday’s development was good for transparency, good governance, and decency in public life.