Tue | Aug 4, 2020

Editorial | Egregious loophole in integrity law

Published:Friday | July 24, 2020 | 12:13 AM

Assuming Greg Christie spoke with the authority of his bosses at the Integrity Commission (IC), the Government should not only address the easy-to-fix operational and staffing issues he highlighted at the agency. It should move quickly, too, to close worrisome loopholes in the law, identified by the commissioners in their recent annual report to Parliament.

Two of the commission’s proposals, we believe, are especially urgent: the one that would require legislators, in their annual integrity filings, to disclose a wider range of beneficial interests; and the other that would end the exemption of public officials, including legislators, having to report gifts from family, no matter the size. We agree with the IC that the exclusion “is a potential corruption enabler”.

Mr Christie, a former contractor general, recently assumed the post of executive director of the Integrity Commission, which makes him, in the commission’s unique structure, the day-to-day operational head of the body, but not the person who provides direction to its quasi-autonomous heads of divisions, who register complaints of corruption, monitor government contracts and investigate claims of corruption, and, where it merits it, prosecute cases. Mr Christie, however, is the person through whom the divisional heads report to the five commissioners, who, under the law, are “ultimately responsible and accountable to Parliament for all matters relating to the functions of the commission”.

NOT FIT FOR PURPOSE

Reporting to a parliamentary oversight committee this week, Mr Christie complained about a staff shortage, and of a structure that was not “fit for purpose”. He noted, for instance, that there was no arm of the two-and-a-half-year-old agency that focused on corruption prevention as opposed to, we presume, corruption detection and prosecution.

The proposed new division, if agreed to, would require additional funding and would, among other things, review the internal processes of public entities that might facilitate corruption, and make recommendations for reforms. And Mr Christie would like the commission to have the power to insist that its recommendations are implemented, on the pain of sanctions against officials who fail to act. The new IC division would also educate Jamaicans about corruption. Pending further and better particulars and serious debate, we reserve judgement on Mr Christie’s suggestion.

Like the commissioners in the report, the executive director noted that the IC received more than 30,000 assets and liabilities filings from public officials annually. All of these are to be examined to determine whether they have been “duly completed” before filers are provided with confirmatory certificates. The upshot: a large backlog of reviews.

The commissioners have called for a clarification, in the law, of what is meant by “examine” and “duly completed”. Apparently, they want it spelt out how much is required of the commission in the context of its resources. That is understandable, for it is unlikely that it will ever be able to annually conduct deep, robust reviews of all the filings by eligible public servants.

BIENNIAL FILINGS

Mr Christie, however, at the parliamentary hearing, floated the idea of officials doing biennial filings to reduce the commission’s workload. It might be simpler and more effective, though, if the law is adjusted to remove the commission’s obligation to examine all the declarations, but allow the right to conduct random inspections of a percentage of the annual filings.

An egregious flaw in the law is that while legislators and public officials are supposed to report in their annual statements gifts of J$100,000 or more, that, according to Section 40 (4) of the act, “does not include such gifts as may be prescribed, or any personal gift that is received by a parliamentarian or a public official from a relative”.

This provision must be excised forthwith. For, as the commission observed: “It is conceivable that a relative of a parliamentarian or a public official could be used as a conduit for the exchange of an illicit benefit, designed to confer a benefit or an advantage to himself or another person.”

The legislators who crafted, and passed, this law couldn’t have been unaware of the corruption-facilitating possibilities of this clause. Unfortunately, we, and others, in our watchdog role were, with respect to this aspect of the bill, not sufficiently vigilant.

We agree with the commission, too, that public officials should, in their filings, have to declare membership of special-interest organisations, whether they sit on boards, their contracts with Government, or other significant dealings that can create a conflict of interest. For, as the saying goes, transparency is the best antidote to corruption.