Sat | Oct 24, 2020

Editorial | GG owes Mr Powell, Jamaica a debt of transparency

Published:Sunday | August 9, 2020 | 12:19 AM

It is not acceptable for the governor general, if he subscribes to the principle of accountability, to treat Wayne Powell’s appointment to the Integrity Commission (IC) as an act which he is not obliged to explain.

For, while Sir Patrick Allen is perhaps on solid legal ground in declining to offer more, the widening constitutional role being thrust upon his office as Jamaica’s democracy evolves demands that King’s House, and Sir Patrick himself, command the public’s confidence and trust. So, offering explanations in a circumstance such as this is neither an assault on dignity nor a sign of weakness. Rather, it implies assurance and builds credence.

But for the auditor general, who, by law, is an automatic member of the IC, the four other commissioners are appointed by the governor general, at his own discretion, from a category of persons listed in the legislation, with the only proviso being that he consults with the prime minister and the leader of the opposition.

In late March, Sir Patrick named Mr Powell, a retired banker, to fill a vacancy on the commission. That decision has been little commented on, until last week’s report by this newspaper of Mr Powell’s membership of the board of Petrojam, the Government’s oil refinery, which was recently the subject of a major investigation by the anti-corruption agency that is still an active matter in the IC, and upon which the commissioners and their staff may have to take decisions. Prosecutions could flow from these actions.

However, King’s House has declined to say whether Sir Patrick was aware of Mr Powell’s membership of the Petrojam board at the time of his appointment to the Integrity Commission. Instead, it referred this newspaper to the IC.

LEGITIMATE QUESTIONS

There is no attempt, or wish, by anyone to impeach Mr Powell’s integrity. But neither Sir Patrick nor any well-thinking person, including Mr Powell, should have any doubt that his appointment, and the timing of it, raises legitimate questions of conflict of interest, or the perception thereof. In the absence of a clear statement on the matter from King’s House, the Integrity Commission declared it is “understanding” that Mr Powell’s appointment to the Petrojam board – in September 2018 – was “subsequent to the matters that have been reported by the commission to Parliament”. He was a member of a new board named in an initial effort at housecleaning, in the wake of the furore over allegations of corruption at Petrojam.

According to the Integrity Commission’s chairman, retired president of the Court of Appeal, Seymour Panton, Mr Powell, at his first meeting, disclosed his Petrojam directorship and “recused himself from all matters relating to that entity”. That, of course, was the decent and honourable thing to do.

However, while in keeping with Justice Panton’s “understanding” that the fundamental corruption issues probed at Petrojam preceded Mr Powell’s tenure as a director, there may well be concern in some quarters that he may not entirely escape controversy.

Indeed, among the matters addressed in the Integrity Commission’s report is the separation package of the person at the centre of the scandals, the company’s former head of human resources, Yolande Ramharrack, who resigned towards the end of 2018. Her exit settlement included eight months’ wages and a hefty bonus payment, agreed to despite the company having initiated a disciplinary hearing against her for breaches of company policy, and a poor rating from the new CEO on her performance appraisal.

In the context of the controversy, the board would likely have been aware of, and, perhaps, party to, Ms Ramharrack’s settlement.

More fundamentally, Sir Patrick is well aware of the low level of confidence Jamaicans have in public officials and institutions and their perception that they live in a highly corrupt country. He should, in the circumstances, have anticipated the legitimate questions raised and be prepared to answer them. Mr Powell and Jamaicans deserve this transparency. It isn’t too late to oblige.

Further, this issue highlights the need to advance the conversation of how we appoint members of boards of public institutions and what ought to be our expectations of the availability of personnel in a small society.