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Editorial | Integrity Commission fails transparency test

Published:Tuesday | July 16, 2019 | 12:00 AM

At first glance, the report of the Integrity Commission, which was tabled in Parliament last week, seems like a fulsome review of its first year as Jamaica’s primary anti-corruption agency. But a closer look suggests that the commission is substantially less transparent than the three institutions it subsumed. And that, unless the commission has a convincing and rational explanation, could be detrimental to its credibility.

In the event, we expect that the commissioners, who, individually, enjoy stellar reputations of personal integrity, will, with urgency, justify the most obviously glaring and critical omission from their document.

It is to be recalled that the new Integrity Commission has the job of the old agency of the same name, as well as those of the former Commission for the Prevention of Corruption and Office of the Contractor General. The first mentioned of these institutions policed the integrity of legislators, who were, and are still required by law to file annual income, assets and liability statements. It is what the commission hasn’t done with regard to this group that is especially peculiar.

These statutory filings by members of the House and Senate cover the calendar year, January to December, but the legislators have three months, up to the end of March the following year, within which to submit their filings. When the Commission submitted its annual reports to Parliament it, as happened with the previous three reports, for 2015 to 2017 – which were sent to the House earlier – named those members of parliament and senators who failed to meet the deadlines and what action was taken against them.

Examined but ‘not cleared’

In the 2017 report, dated April 26, 2019, the current commission, having inherited the responsibilities of the old body, listed eight MPs, including three who were no longer in Parliament, whose declarations it had examined but “not cleared”. The commission wanted more information on their filings.

Among this group was Prime Minister Andrew Holness. Asked at a May 13 press conference hosted by the commission about the status of Mr Holness’ filing, Commissioner Pamela Monroe Ellis declared: “I can report that as of today, the status remains the same.” It is quite understandable that this reported status of a prime minister, who came to office on a decidedly anti-corruption platform, and whose administration is embroiled in serial allegations of corruption, is cause for disquiet in the society.

However, in the midst of the debate, including warnings by this newspaper of the danger the situation posed to the PM’s authority to espouse on matters of integrity, a spokesman for Mr Holness reported that the prime minister had, in the month before the commission’s press conference, provided the additional information requested about his filings.

Mrs Monroe Ellis’ remark would have been strange if, on the basis of the information provided, Mr Holness’ 2017 filing was ‘cleared’. And if that clearance was subsequent to the date of the press conference, the commission, in the circumstance, was obligated, in our view, to so declare. That didn’t happen – neither for Mr Holness nor the other seven legislators whose declarations were examined “but not cleared”.

No follow-up

Even more egregious is that there is no follow-up in the latest report. While the 2018 document states the number of legislators – 69, or 80 per cent – who filed on time, it doesn’t name them. Nor does it disclose the 17 who were late. This, without more, is an absence of transparency that makes it difficult to hold errant legislators to account, which undermines the intent of the integrity laws. There is no sign either that the exclusion was because its inclusion would be counter to Section 36(4) of the act that prohibits reporting on matters if it would “prejudice proceedings”, or if the information was subject to “legal professional privilege”.

In the meantime, Section 42(3)(b) of the law obligates the commission to make public, via the Gazette, summary reports of the filings of the prime minister and the leader of the Opposition. It must comply forthwith.