Mon | Oct 25, 2021

Editorial | Michelle Charles versus paper tiger ombudsman

Published:Sunday | March 7, 2021 | 12:09 AM

Dr Michelle Charles is right. Even a four-year-old child would see, in the sense she posits it, that there was no vote-buying. There wasn’t a specific transaction between Dr Charles or her representative(s) and any voter or group of voters in St Thomas Eastern, in which the latter received money, or any other thing of value, in exchange for a promise to vote, or for having actually cast a ballot for Dr Charles in last September’s general election.

What a four-year would have discerned, even if we take the heavy lift of assuming that Dr Charles was ignorant of the implication of the event, was the use, or an attempt so to do, of state resources as patronage to sway voters to support Dr Charles in an electoral contest. In that regard, the political ombudsman, Donna Parchment Brown, erred in the scope of her investigation, by not probing deeply enough the role of SCJ Holdings – the vehicle through which the Government controls its sugar industry assets – in this affair. The ombudsman’s findings against Dr Charles are, in the circumstances, neither a full nor adequate outcome of the matter.

Additionally, the case further shows Mrs Parchment Brown as a paper tiger and that the Office of the Political Ombudsman ought to be the subject of frank debate about its continued relevance. And if it is the conclusion that keeping the ombudsman makes sense, then how its mandate and powers might be tweaked to make it more useful.

ATTENDANCE AT AN EVENT

The case of Dr Charles was about her attendance at an event at which workers of a commercial sugar cane farm, owned by her father, the former politician, Pearnel Charles Sr, received cheques as redundancy/ ex gratia payments because of the closure of the sugar industry in the constituency that Dr Charles was seeking to represent in Parliament. Those payments were by SCJ Holdings, therefore, from the resources of Jamaica’s taxpayers. Charles Sr, like his daughter, who is now the MP for St Thomas Eastern, is a member of the governing Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). He, at the time, was the outgoing speaker of the House. He once represented the same constituency. Additionally, Dr Charles is, or was, a director of the farm. The event that was the basis of the dispute was a week before the general election.

The foregoing is important contextual background.

The official position is that Dr Charles was merely invited to the event by her father. Her political opponent was also invited – and attended. Both addressed the crowd.

It is unclear how, or why, Charles Sr, the principal of St Thomas Farms Ltd, came to preside at an event for the payment of 487 workers, when only 34, seven per cent, were employed to his farm. Why SCJ Holdings wanted the cheques handled by the farm companies, rather than its own officers, and why the transactions were by cheques rather than bank transfers, remains, at best, hazy. There is a need for further and better particulars on this matter to establish motive, or the absence thereof. A fuller investigation by the political ombudsman might have answered those questions. If they were looked into and answered, the public wasn’t given the findings.

In the event, Dr Charles, in her address to workers, which had the feel of a campaign rally, said: “Most of you know who I am. Most of you know that an election is coming and I am not going to pretend that it is not political because I need your vote.”

REASONABLE APPEAL

That statement is of itself a reasonable and honest appeal for votes by a politician on the hustings. The possibility of it becoming more when it is taken in the fuller context of the episode: the handing out of state resources in the heat of an election contest by Dr Charles’ father, then a senior member of the governing party and the presiding officer of Parliament. Even Dr Charles would agree that the circumstance, on the face of it, met the officious bystander test for an appeal to patronage, for which Charles Sr’s role in St Thomas Farms wouldn’t provide a fig leaf sufficiently broad to conceal.

Unfortunately, Dr Charles, maybe because of naivete, failed to recognise that taken together, her words and their apparent context may have pushed her across the line in a breach of the Political Code of Conduct against improperly attempting to influence the choice of voters with public or private money, as Mrs Parchment Brown ruled. This is not a criminal offence under the political ombudsman law.

But by Mrs Parchment Brown’s reckoning, Dr Charles also skirted close, and very probably waded into, the prohibition of the Representation of the People Act of candidates in an election from “directly or indirectly” giving, lending, offering, or promising voters “money or valuable consideration” to induce ballots in her favour

When the political ombudsman makes adverse findings against politicians or the supporters of political parties, whether in respect to the Political Code of Conduct or for breachers of other electoral laws, the ombudsman’s only recourse is to send those findings, with any recommendations for redress, to the leaders of the political parties. In Dr Charles’ case, Mrs Parchment Brown recommended counselling and mentoring. If nothing happens within a reasonable time she can seek to have the reports tabled in Parliament. That’s it. Mrs Parchment Brown has been lobbying, without avail, for the authority to refer potentially criminal matters to the director of public prosecutions.

First, however, there should be a review of the law for relevance, including whether it is past its best-by date, and how the Office of the Political Ombudsman should interface with the Electoral Commission of Jamaica, which runs elections, but which has been less than aggressive in pursuing claims, such as has exercised the ombudsman. That review should start now.