Sat | Dec 4, 2021

Editorial | Pushing Dirk Harrison overboard

Published:Monday | May 6, 2019 | 12:00 AM

The new Integrity Commission needs to say whether it retains confidence in its acting director of prosecutions, Dirk Harrison, and, if it does, what the commissioners see as the way forward after their bust-up over Mr Harrison’s conclusions in one of his final investigations in his former job as contractor general.

The commissioners – Karl Harrison, Seymour Panton, Pamela Monroe-Ellis, Erick Crawford and Derrick McKoy – understand that there is a perception that their actions were undermining Mr Harrison and that there was an attempt, to put it crudely, to throw him under the bus.This new Integrity Commission encompasses Dirk Harrison’s old position, as well as the two separate anti-corruption bodies to which parliamentarians and public servants lodged annual income and assets and liabilities reports. The commission is yet to disclose, or report on, any investigations it may have initiated in its year of existence.

But, under the law, it has oversight of those, including the one subject to the current controversy, which were put in train by the other agencies before its launch.

That probe was into the 2016 sale by the Government’s Urban Development Corporation (UDC) of a beachfront hotel and adjoining lands for US$7.2 million.

Questions of value

Independent valuators valued the properties, combined, at between US$11.83 million and US$13.55 million. This suggests that UDC, which initially floated a price of US$9.3 million, eventually sold it at a discount of between 27 per cent and 46 per cent, depending on the valuation used.

Mr Harrison, basing his findings on minutes from UDC meetings, internal communications and interviews with officers, held that the agency didn’t negotiate from a “position of strength” and ‘failed to optimise revenue” because of the interventions of Daryl Vaz, minister in the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation , which officially falls under Prime Minister Andrew Holness. His case, effectively, is that UDC rubber-stamped a price that was set outside the organisation and that Mr Vaz had a hand in the effort. The minister, however, insists the price was negotiated by the UDC, to which the prime minister had no objection.

In any event, any discount to the purchasers would be greatly recouped in hotel expansion, jobs and taxes.The controversy now turns on the approach of the commissioners to the report when Mr Harrison first submitted it last July, and their decision to append to the document, for its tabling in Parliament last week, responses by Mr Vaz, and others, who were the subject of adverse comments in the document. According to the commissioners, they questioned the “validity of certain substantive conclusions” of the initial version of the report. When Mr Harrison submitted another draft in March, he said it was his final and insisted that it be sent to Parliament. The commissioners, in what they said was in the “interest of transparency, procedural fairness and natural justice”, shared the report with the implicated parties, providing them with an opportunity to respond, which Mr Harrison sees as providing these persons, who gave evidence during the probe, “a second bite of the cherry”.

That they were allowed to the see the entire report, to better provide them context, may not be too much of a stretch, given that the old Contractor General Act required that persons he commented on adversely, “so far as practicable”, be informed “of the substance of the report”. But appending the rebuttals, almost as an annex to the document, for referral to Parliament, is unusual. It seems the kind of action taken against an investigator in whose work there is no confidence.

Yet, apart from this squabble, there has been no opportunity for judging Harrison’s mettle at the Integrity Commission. No cases have been sent for prosecution, assuming he has a fiat to do so. Further, as the commissioners well know, Jamaica’s international partners have grown frustrated with what they perceive as low energy at the commission. Moreover, in his former jobs as deputy director of public prosecutions and as contractor general, Mr Harrison won wide respect as a fearless and aggressive fighter of corruption.