Mon | Jun 24, 2019

Integrity in hot seat - Commission to face tough questions over probes

Published:Monday | May 13, 2019 | 12:33 AMRomario Scott/Gleaner Writer
Retired Justice Karl Harrison, executive director of the Integrity Commission.

The Integrity Commission is expected to break its silence today on a public spat between its commissioners and Dirk Harrison, the director of prosecutions, as well as harsh criticism domestically and from international partners about the pace and transparency of its investigations of public officials.

The commission, headed by retired Court of Appeal president, Justice Karl Harrison, will host a press conference at 10 a.m., at which it is expected to address those issues, as well as update the country on the filings of Prime Minister Andrew Holness and those of several other parliamentarians who have not been cleared of scrutiny, according to a report the commission tabled in Parliament on April 30.

The public will be listening keenly to hear a declaration from the commission on whether it retains any confidence in Dirk Harrison and whether his position at the Integrity Commission is untenable.

Dirk Harrison is not related to Karl Harrison.

The commissioners are also expected to address claims by Gleaner sources that the corruption watchdog is understaffed and under-resourced, effectively barring it from resolving a backlog of more than 100,000 declarations from public officials, including legacy carryovers from the former Corruption Prevention Commission.

The Integrity Commission will be pressed by journalists to state how many of these matters have been cleared up and how many officials have been prosecuted since the law gave the organisation sweeping powers.

In tabling a report of the Office of the Contractor General (OCG) into the Urban Development Corporation’s sale of the Rooms on the Beach resort property and related beach lands, Karl Harrison had indicated that the commissioners had, unanimously, expressed concerns about the objectivity of the assessment. The OCG, then headed by Dirk Harrison, was collapsed into a single anti-corruption body in 2017. Along with the tabled report, the Integrity Commission presented statements by Prime Minister Andrew Holness and Minister without Portfolio Daryl Vaz, who Dirk Harrison accused of meddling in the negotiations with Puerto Caribe Properties Ltd, operators of the Moon Palace Jamaica Grande Hotel. The OCG charged that Vaz exercised undue influence over the heavily discounted sale price, which he characterised as “an insult to the people of Jamaica”.

But Dirk Harrison rubbished the Integrity Commission’s conclusions, arguing that the presentation of additional statements was akin to giving the government ministers “a second bite of the cherry”.

The Integrity Commission has come under withering criticism for its failure to give updates on investigations, but it has leant on an interpretation of the Integrity Act that it should not comment on probes.

URGENT REFORM

Several civil-society stakeholders have called for urgent reform of the commission to build public confidence and national buy-in.

Jamaica fell two points in the latest edition of the international Corruption Perception Index.

The State Department of the United States of America, in its latest Human Rights Report on Jamaica, noted that the law to curb corruption perpetrated and facilitated by public officials was not implemented effectively.

“The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the Government, generally, did not implement the law effectively. Officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There were numerous reports of government corruption during the year, and it remained a significant problem of public concern,” the report noted in a section titled ‘Corruption and the Lack of Transparency in Government’.

“It was unclear if the National Integrity Commission was investigating the state-owned petroleum refinery, Petrojam, for possible breaches of procurement procedures, cost overruns, missing funds, and the payment of exorbitant consulting fees, which were widely reported in the press,” the report further went on to say.

Besides Karl Harrison, the other commissioners are former president of the Court of Appeal, Justice Seymour Panton; Auditor General Pamela Monroe Ellis; chartered accountant Eric Crawford; and former Contractor General Derrick McKoy.

romario.scott@gleanerjm.com