Sun | Aug 9, 2020

Unacceptable! - Integrity Commission boss says MPs should not accept cash, gifts to distribute to constituents

Published:Sunday | July 5, 2020 | 12:21 AMLivern Barrett - Senior Staff Reporter

Two months after lawmakers on both sides of the political divide lauded a $31.5-million donation from business mogul Gordon ‘Butch’ Stewart, Jamaica’s corruption watchdog agency has warned parliamentarians that they should not accept cash and other gifts from individuals or companies to be distributed to constituents.

That caution was issued by chairman of the Integrity Commission, Seymour Panton, in the latest report sent to Parliament by the corruption oversight body.

“Where an individual or a corporation decides to be philanthropic, that individual or corporation ought not to use a parliamentarian as the vehicle of such philanthropy,” Panton wrote in the commission’s 2019-20 annual report, which was tabled in the House of Representatives last Tuesday.

“There should be no question of giving money to a parliamentarian to distribute to constituents. That is unacceptable, notwithstanding the goodness and generous spirit of the donor.”

The Accountant General’s Department (AGD) told The Sunday Gleaner that it “does not have a view” on the issue of private citizens or corporate entities making donations to the Consolidated Fund.

“Donations, generally called grants, are to be directed to the Consolidated Fund, regardless of the source. The handling of grants is managed in accordance with the rules as outlined at Section 7A (1) and (2) of the Financial Administration and Audit Act,” the AGD said in an email.

The procedure may also involve deposits to the Central Receipts Account for further transfer to the Consolidated Fund, the agency added.

Central Payment Account

The $31.5-million donation from Stewart, chairman of the luxury hotel chain Sandals Resort International, hit the Government’s coffers on May 8, the agency confirmed. The AGD disclosed that in line with directives from the finance ministry, the funds were transferred to the Central Payment Account and later to the account that holds the Constituency Development Fund (CDF), in keeping with instructions from the Office of the Prime Minister.

Government and Opposition members of parliament (MPs) applauded the move after it was announced in Gordon House by Prime Minister Andrew Holness.

Holness indicated that the funds would be disbursed to all parliamentarians to assist constituents facing hardships brought on by the coronavirus pandemic locally.

A statement released by the Sandals boss after Holness’ announcement explained that each of the island’s 63 constituencies would receive $500,000.

He indicated, also, that based on consultation with Holness and Opposition Leader Dr Peter Phillips, each MP would be “responsible for the preparation and distribution of the care packages to those in need within all constituencies”.

But even as the donation raised eyebrows in some sections of the society, Stewart explained that he felt it was both his personal and corporate duty to “provide the assistance during these unprecedented and extremely difficult times”.

Opposition MP Dr Angela Brown Burke insisted initially that she had “absolutely” no issues accepting Stewart’s cash to assist her constituents.

She explained that the donation, which has already been reflected in her CDF, is being used to prepare food and care packages for residents in her St Andrew South West constituency hit hard by the economic pinch caused by the pandemic.

“In fact, because it was made publicly, it is not something that I am ashamed of or afraid of. You want to ensure that you can put food on the table, you can keep them (constituents) clean and this goes a long way to doing that,” she noted.

But when informed of the position of the Integrity Commission chairman, the first-term MP said she was not aware of the opinion.

“I am glad that you brought it to my attention so I will do some homework to see exactly what was said,” Brown Burke told The Sunday Gleaner last week.

“Whatever standards the Integrity Commission set and it is put down as part of the code by which we operate, I would willingly and unhesitatingly follow those rules.”

Government MP Leslie Campbell said his understanding was that it was a “gift” from Sandals Resort International and “not Mr Stewart personally”.

Further, Campbell, the outgoing St Catherine North East MP, said his information was that the funds would be treated “as a grant like any other grant” and would go to his CDF through the Consolidated Fund.

“If the funds were sent to the Consolidated Fund and is mixed with everything else there, it could not be said that those funds were tainted in any way or were given to individual members of parliament,” he reasoned.

But without making any reference to the donation by Stewart, the Integrity Commission chairman pointed out that the role of parliamentarians was to devise policies for the improvement of the lives of their constituents and communities and to make representations in that regard.

“A philanthropist should do the distribution himself or herself, or use the services of established charitable bodies such as the Salvation Army,” said Panton, a retired Court of Appeal and High Court judge.

“Parliamentarians are not supposed to be engaged in the distribution of gifts, scarce resources or spoils.”

DANGEROUS MOVE

Professor Trevor Munroe, head of the anti-corruption lobby group National Integrity Action (NIA), said Panton’s stance should be viewed against the backdrop of concerns in Jamaica and other democracies globally that state authorities, particularly politicians, are more interested in serving the interests of a few wealthy and well-connected individuals than the interests of the majority.

“Therefore, everything must be done to reduce the impression and much more the reality of political representatives serving wealthy private interests as against serving the people,” Munroe reasoned.

The NIA executive director said he interprets Panton’s comments as an attempt to indicate what are the appropriate ethics that should guide parliamentarians.

Another academic, Professor Anthony Clayton, believes channelling money through MPs is dangerous for several reasons.

Clayton opined that allowing parliamentarians to dole out funds would allow them to maintain the “networks of corruption and political patronage that have done this country so much harm”.

“Some MPs will take a percentage of the money going through their hands,” he said, adding that there is also the risk of funds being distributed based on political allegiance.

livern.barrett@gleanerjm.com