Sat | Dec 4, 2021

Editorial | Parties colluded to impair Integrity Act

Published:Wednesday | May 8, 2019 | 12:00 AM

Peter Phillips is on solid ground in his embrace of this newspaper’s call for a review of the Integrity Commission Act, but is wrong if he would limit any change to, as he seems to imply, the removal of the auditor general from membership of the commission.

For, the composition of the commission is not the only element of the law to which his People’s National Party (PNP) didn’t give “sufficient consideration” during its deliberation by Parliament. If the unvarnished truth be told, the Government and the Opposition, which is to say, Prime Minister Andrew Holness’ Jamaica Labour Party, and Dr Phillips’ PNP, colluded to produce a bill that wasn’t what the country deserved. And they knew better!

The Integrity Commission has been in operation for little over a year, having eclipsed, and subsumed, two previous anti-corruption watchdogs for parliamentarians and public servants, as well as the Office of the Contractor General that used to police the award and execution of government contracts.

Dr Phillips’ matter of concern is the open repudiation by the commissioners of former Contractor General Dirk Harrison’s conclusions from his investigation of the sale by the Government’s Urban Development Corporation (UDC) of a north coast hotel and adjacent lands for up to 42 per cent below valuation, as well as their unprecedented action of appending the rebuttals of persons adversely commented on in the report to the final document, for submission to Parliament.

The most critical person Mr Harrison fingered was Daryl Vaz, a minister in the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation, whose interventions into the negotiations, he suggested, effectively established the sale price for the properties, which prevented the UDC from maximising returns from the deal. Mr Vaz insists that the price was negotiated by the UDC and that the discount did not breach government policy, given the agency’s leeway to make such decisions to facilitate development. In this case, he argues, it will mean a multimillion-dollar hotel expansion, the creation of new jobs and tax returns to the Government, within three years, of US$30 million a year.

There are, however, three significant complicating factors to this controversy. One is that, apart from the Integrity Commission having oversight for undertakings begun by the old agencies before the new law came into force, Mr Harrison, as acting director of prosecutions, is one of its employees. So, this is a messy internal fight gone public.

The second is that Mr Harrison recommended his report be forwarded to the auditor general for that office to determine how to proceed with it. The auditor general is the Government’s chief auditor, whose job, among other things, is to ensure “an effective check on the assessment, collection and proper allocation of the revenue and other receipts of the Government”.

But, third, the auditor general, Pamela Monroe Ellis is, by virtue of office, an automatic member of the five-person commission. This represents a clear conflict of interest for Mrs Monroe Ellis, who is being asked to give a good-faith assessment of Mr Harrison’s report that she, as part of the Integrity Commission, has already repudiated.

LIKELIHOOD OF OVERLAP

This newspaper has no question about Mrs Monroe-Ellis’ personal integrity or skills. The work of her office, over many years, speaks for itself.

But justice must not only be done, but seen to be done. The perception of unfairness will linger, even if she recuses herself from anything to do with Mr Harrison’s document.Even if an event such as this one does not arise again, there is the likelihood of overlap between the work Mrs Munroe Ellis does routinely, and investigations the Integrity Commission will undertake. In that regard, the auditor general can’t be a member of the commission.

Further, we repeat our call for the repeal of Section 36 of the act, inserted by politicians to impair transparency as protection for themselves, that muzzles the commission’s disclosure of investigations until after they are done and tabled in Parliament.

Additionally, politicians, especially those who have the ears of Government, and who face adverse outcomes from an investigation, can buy time by having the requisite minister delay the tabling of the report in Parliament. In that regard, Section 36 must be amended to allow for the automatic publication of the document if, after 60 days of its presentation to Government, it isn’t tabled in Parliament.