Mon | Sep 20, 2021

Editorial | Mr Sibblies in a knot

Published:Friday | June 11, 2021 | 12:14 AM

No one should have to explain to Dwight Sibblies, the North Clarendon member of parliament (MP), that there was always going to be the potential for conflicts of interest between his membership of Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and one of his day jobs – chief internal auditor at the University of Technology (UTech).

But neither, for that matter, should the university, which also boasts a faculty of law, need a lecture on such matters. Nor should the Holness administration, which has talked big about integrity in parliamentary oversight of government, be unsure and murky on this issue.

Yet all parties, to put it at its most charitable, have fumbled the ball. The situation demands that Mr Sibblies and UTech be fulsome and transparent about the arrangement that they have cobbled together with respect to the MP’s relationship with the university and when that arrangement was put in place.

Additionally, the parliamentary leadership, including Prime Minister Andrew Holness, must say what they intend to do about Mr Sibblies’ membership of the PAC and any of the committees on which he sits, which may have to review the operations of UTech, including matters in which he may have been involved. At the same time, there should be a full review to ensure that no other member of the House is in a similar situation.

Dwight Sibblies was among the government members of the PAC who, at a recent sitting of the committee, attempted to harry the auditor general, Pamela Monroe Ellis, about supposed accountability and quality lapses in her performance. Their action, however, was largely interpreted as a ruse to weaken the integrity of the office of the auditor general to take the sting out of her unearthing of cronyism and corruption in government operations.

Now, there are questions of how Mr Sibblies and his employers at UTech have managed his transition from lawyer with a private practice and university internal auditor to being an MP, with membership of several critical House committees.

SILENT ON THE MATTER

Although Mr Sibblies is not a member of the university’s academic staff, it is not unreasonable to assume that he, too, is covered by the precept of academic freedom, which removes the constraint to involvement in partisan political activity from academics. Indeed, the legislation establishing UTech, a state-owned university, is silent on this matter. So, too, are the university’s charter and statutes.

Moreover, UTech’s Acting President Colin Gyles reported that in February of this year, the university received a legal opinion from the attorney general saying that there was nothing in the legislation barring him from becoming a parliamentarian. That legal opinion was more than four months after the general election in which Mr Sibblies became an MP for the governing Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). It would have been better if the advice had been sought and received when Mr Sibblies indicated he was throwing his hat in the ring.

However, Mr Sibblies’ right to be an MP is not the entire story. Under Parliament’s Standing Orders, any financial accounts of government ministries, departments and agencies that are tabled in Parliament are automatically forwarded to the PAC for review. So, too, are all special audits and other reports done by the auditor general. Such reports are often also sent to the Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC), another committee on which Mr Sibblies sits.

The University of Technology, Jamaica Act requires that the university forward its annual reports and financial statements to the education minister yearly. These reports must, by law, be tabled in Parliament. Given Mr Sibblies’ elevation to the parliamentary committees, there would always be the possibility of the ethical perversity that he might sit in oversight of his other employer – a conflict that is not readily cured by a parliamentary exemption for Mr Sibblies the MP to conduct business with UTech, his employer. Indeed, it could happen that Mr Sibblies is called on to give account of his own stewardship with respect to his job at UTech to one of the parliamentary committees of which he is a member.

IN WHAT SKIN WOULD HE RESIDE?

The question then, as a former prime minister once put it, would be in what skin would he reside? It tickles the imagination to contemplate Mr Sibblies, sitting among his fellow committee members, posing a question to himself, then moving to the witness’ chair to provide the answer.

Perhaps it will not come to that, if it is possible to clearly untangle what UTech’s acting president, Mr Gyles, means exactly by the following: “Upon receipt of the advice and in consultation with Mr Sibblies and all the relevant parties, it was mutually agreed that based on the University of Technology, Jamaica Act and the human resources policies of the university, secondment arrangements would be pursued, resulting in Mr Sibblies stepping away from the role of chief internal auditor. These internal arrangements are now in place based on approvals granted from the relevant authorities.”

Some pertinent questions include, to whom Mr Sibblies has been seconded, on what terms and for how long? Further, Mr Gyles should say when did it all happen and what it expected to be Mr Sibblies’ ongoing and future relationship with UTech. This whole matter has been messily handled. Are there similar ones in Parliament?