Tue | Oct 24, 2017

Get it out! - Parliament under pressure to remove provision that could shield Cabinet contracts from corruption probes

Published:Monday | July 24, 2017 | 12:00 AMJovan Johnson

Jamaica's biggest business group and the main anti-corruption lobby in the island are demanding that the Government remove the 'dangerous' section of an anti-corruption bill that would allow Cabinet to designate some contracts 'confidential' and require that investigators get permission before starting a probe.

The controversial Clause 52 of the Integrity Commission Bill was approved by the Senate last Thursday. There were 103 changes to the legislation approved by the House of Representatives in January. When law, it will allow for the establishment of a single anti-corruption agency with prosecutorial and investigative powers.

Under the clause, the director of investigations must get permission to probe contracts and licences relating to equipment provision for the security forces. It also includes a third part, which gives the Cabinet the power to make confidential any contracts it "determines", and to probe those will also require permission from the Cabinet secretary.

The Opposition wanted that third section removed but was outvoted.

However, National Integrity Action (NIA) and the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica (PSOJ) are arguing that the House, which could approve the changes as early as tomorrow when it is scheduled to meet, must remove the controversial clause if the law is not to be undermined.

"This is completely unacceptable," said NIA's executive director, Professor Trevor Munroe. He said that the House should be "very, very firm" in deleting the provision.

"If that provision remains, it threatens to undermine the requirement of the stand-by agreement 2016-2019 with the International Monetary Fund, which states that the Integrity Commission Act ought to be strong and ought to be a step forward in the country's architecture in respect of dealing with corruption."

Munroe said that Prime Minister Andrew Holness should lead the process.

"It really has got to go, especially in the light of recent findings by the Office of the Contractor General (OCG) in respect of the Cabinet's involvement in the debushing contract award process."

Dennis Chung, chief executive officer of the PSOJ, said that he "can understand" the Government's position in wanting some "flexibility" in protecting matters of national security, especially the procurement process, which he said "has held up so many things, including billions of US in investments".

But transparency, he said, cannot be sacrificed.

"It's very important that the independence of the director of investigations is not seen to be compromised. We don't want to have a situation, as they do in the United States, where some people feel that the president can pardon himself.

"There needs to be total transparency," Chung said.

"We know how things work in this country, and if you allow that loophole, people are going to take advantage of it."

 

DEFEATING THE LAW'S INTENT

 

The PSOJ CEO said that if the House does not change or remove the controversial provision under Clause 52, Parliament would be risking approving a law with things in it that would defeat the intent of the law.

"Good sense needs to prevail. We're trying to reduce the incidence of corruption in the country. We don't want to put that sort of blanket catch-all thing in there (the law)," he said.

"When governments do these things, they need to understand, maybe politicians don't think about it, but they're not going to be in power for ever."

When Leader of Opposition Business Mark Golding raised the issue, Kamina Johnson Smith, his government counterpart, told him that he, while in government, had presided over a parliamentary committee that accepted the provision endorsed by the Finance Investigations Division.

But according to Golding, "circumstances have changed".

He pointed to the questions raised recently by the contractor general about the Cabinet's award and subsequent role in the $606 million debushing programme.

Three Cabinet ministers, who admitted to having discussions with the contractors, have been accused of dictating how payments were to be made to subcontractors.

Johnson Smith said that she noted the concerns but "we have to trust that a Cabinet of the country, with the support of the Cabinet secretary, will manage this matter appropriately".

The law governing the OCG, one of the entities that will form the single anti-corruption entity, includes the provisions regarding the security forces but not the controversial section.

Former Contractor General Greg Christie says that any widening of restrictions "would be a retrograde step".

jovan.johnson@gleanerjm.com