Sat | Nov 27, 2021

Editorial | Enhance integrity law now

Published:Sunday | July 11, 2021 | 12:10 AM

Having had three years to observe its operation, it would be prudent for Parliament to review, and amend, the legislation upon which the Integrity Commission (IC) rests, including making those changes the IC has flagged as important to improving its efficiency, as well as its ability to identify and prosecute corrupt public officials.

In fact, the Holness administration should push the matter to the top of its agenda, as part of a strategy to address the deep, and festering, cynicism about the honesty of the Jamaican State and the problem of fashion consensus on critical national questions, such as how to respond to high levels of crime and criminal violence. Changing these deep-seated perceptions of the Jamaican bureaucracy won’t happen overnight, but it would help if people believed, and had evidence to the effect, that public officials who behave corruptly faced a real likelihood of being prosecuted and punished. Which, too, would be a deterrent to bad behaviour.

In this regard, the Integrity Commission should be allowed no cause for excuse for failing to fulfil its mandate. Which is why it should be afforded the legislative requests it has been making since its first report, none of which this newspaper finds outlandish or unreasonable. Indeed, some are urgent.

Take, for instance, the matter of the potentially corruption-enabling clause in the law, which requires legislators and public officials to report, in their annual filings, gifts valuing J$100,000 or more. However, such donations are exempt if they are “personal gifts … received by a parliamentarian or a public official from a relative”.

CREATED LOOPHOLE

A year ago, the Integrity Commission warned that this exemption created a loophole which could be exploited by public officials “for the exchange of an illicit benefit, designed to confer a benefit or an advantage to himself or another person” – a point the IC repeated in its 2020-2021 annual report. We share that concern and agree that the clause should be excised.

Similarly, we support the commission’s bid – by amendments to operating regulations, over which it has greater autonomy – to have public officials declare directorships, beneficial interests in businesses and trusts, the costs of property improvements, contracts with Government and other factors that could pose a conflict of interest. Even ahead of our proposed broader review of the act, the Cabinet should endorse these regulatory changes and have them quickly taken to Parliament for the affirmative resolution that’s required for them to come into force.

This newspaper, of course, appreciates that corruption is not a single-lane road and, therefore, not an entirely public-sector phenomenon. When legislators and public officials accept graft and kickbacks, that bribe, even if elicited by a bureaucrat, is often paid by private individuals and firms, who perceive value in the deal. Indeed, private-sector officials sometimes initiate the bribe, seeing such an expenditure merely as a cost of doing business, which itself is a sad commentary on their expectation of the behaviour of the public bureaucracy. The default assumption is not that enterprises compete on merit, but that they must pay to play.

We nonetheless embrace the Integrity Commission’s view that the private sector, too, has an inherent obligation towards a state and society that operates with integrity and fairness and should, therefore, face sanctions if they do not adhere to prescribed norms. In that respect, we feel that firms, especially those that vie for government contracts, should have strong anti-bribery codes.

The private sector must be welcoming, too, of a discussion of the commission’s call for a private sector-focused law making bribery a strict liability offence, thereby creating a situation where firms could be more easily convicted, once the bribery offence has been proved, without necessarily establishing intent. This would place an onus on boards to ensure not only an anti-bribery culture in their organisations, but that bosses maintain vigilant oversight to prevent negligence and recklessness by their executives.

ANTIDOTE TO CORRUPTION

Ultimately, though, the antidote to corruption is transparency and enforcement. With respect to the former, it is notable that the IC in its new report said that two parliamentarians and six public officials were under investigation for illicit enrichment, but gave no names. That, in part, is because the law prevents the commission from commenting on investigations until a probe is complete and a report is tabled in Parliament.

The commission’s call for an amendment to allow it, at its discretion, to comment at the start of a commencement of an investigation is quite sensible. It would build public trust if people have a sense of what the commission is doing, rather than have to speculate on its response to credible allegations of mishandling of taxpayers’ resources.

Further, the IC has its own, independent, prosecutor, an office for which many people lobbied strongly when the IC act was being drafted and debated. Society does not expect that office to be mere window dressing. People want it to act within its mandate. In other words, they are looking forward to the prosecutor energetically pursuing the handful of cases that have arisen from IC probes, and for that officer to act with dispatch on those now before that office for consideration.