Tue | Sep 21, 2021

Editorial | Integrity Commission owes no apology

Published:Wednesday | July 21, 2021 | 12:09 AM

As would be the case with any other institution or individual, if the Integrity Commission (IC) makes an error, it has an obligation to apologise – without reservation. But doing its job is not a matter for which it should have to placate anyone or explain itself.

Which is why we are surprised, given his usually cantankerous obduracy, that the commission’s chairman, Seymour Panton, a retired president of the Court of Appeal, felt compelled to deny a claim by anonymous sources that the IC is on a witch-hunt against senior civil servants. Although a bit of Justice Panton’s personality shone through with his assertion that the statements were “false”.

The development, however, perhaps highlights the need for the Integrity Commission to undertake an intensive public education campaign on its structure, how it operates, its aims and objectives, and why these are important to Jamaica. As part of this exercise, the IC should, as is provided for in the law, commission a study on the “extent of financial loss and such other losses to public bodies, private individuals and organisations, including losses sustained by the private sector, as a result of acts of corruption”.

Such a report must not be merely a totting-up of figures, based on reports to the police and convictions in the courts. It must be the outcome of robust analysis of corruption-related seepages from the system, using globally accepted assumptions tailored to the Jamaican experience. Models for this are widely used by, and would therefore be available from, international partners, in the event that domestic researchers are not au fait with these methodologies.

WELCOME THIS ENHANCED OVERSIGHT

The Observer newspaper reported last week that Craig Beresford, the Integrity Commission’s director for information and complaints, had written to “at least eight permanent secretaries and a number of other senior civil servants,” advising that their statutory declarations for 2019 were undergoing deeper analysis. The assumption, therefore, is that Mr Beresford had questions about the assets and liabilities statements they filed for the period.

Indeed, the commission has to be satisfied about the accuracy of such records before it issues certificates of compliance to legislators and those public servants whose jobs or levels of income demand that they make statutory filings. But according to the Observer, some people interpret the commission’s due diligence as a “witch-hunt” against officials “who have served for several years without any hint of corruption being linked to them”. Which, of course, is irrelevant.

We do not question that the selected public servants are of the highest integrity. That, however, does not mean that documents they present to the Integrity Commission should be taken at face value merely because of the reputation or longevity in the public sector of the people who filed them.

Notwithstanding that the officials whose declarations are subject to this review were, as Justice Panton explained, chosen at random, public-sector mandarins should welcome the scrutiny. Upwards of 70 per cent of Jamaicans believe the island’s public bureaucracy is steeped in corruption – a perception rejected by public officials. A vindication of the sector’s leadership by the island’s integrity watchdog can only be good for its credibility. It would probably do the bureaucracy well if the Permanent Secretaries Board were to welcome this enhanced oversight, as burdensome as it may be for some.

OBVIOUS HOSTILITY

In the meantime, Prime Minister Andrew Holness should advise the president of the Senate, Tom Tavares-Finson, that his obvious hostility to the energy and transparency that the Integrity Commission’s executive director, Greg Christie, brings to his effort to build a robust anti-corruption platform in Jamaica is bad optics for the administration. Mr Tavares-Finson’s disdain oozed out of his response to this newspaper’s question of whether he might be one of two legislators the commission said, in its recent annual report, were being investigated for possibly filing false statements and illicit enrichment.

“Mr Christie’s modus operandi is to use social media to put forward his opinions on various and sundry topics and to advance his agenda,” the Senate president said. “... So, if you have a question about Mr Christie and his investigations and the investigations of the Integrity Commission, such inquiry is best put to Mr Christie.”

First, under the Integrity Commission Act, Mr Christie does not conduct investigations. Neither can he instigate or direct them. The director of information and complaints may recommend to the commission that a matter be forwarded to the director of investigations, who operates with independence.

However, Mr Christie is an avid user of social media, especially Twitter, where he addresses broad issues of integrity and corruption, though, not on the evidence suggested, specific matters before the Integrity Commission. Indeed, the law forbids the commission to speak publicly about investigations it is undertaking, or to even say one has been started, until a probe has been completed and a report has been tabled in Parliament.

A BAD IDEA

That restriction was a direct political pushback from the days when Mr Christie was the contractor general (an office now rolled into the Integrity Commission) and he generated fear among public officials with his public comments about investigations he had opened, or the agencies that had failed to submit reports on contracts negotiated or implemented. Removing that right to comment was a bad idea, which should be reversed.

Hopefully, Mr Tavares-Finson’s antagonism to Mr Christie’s “ modus operandi” does not impair his objectivity if and when matters relating to, or between, the Integrity Commission and members of the legislature reach his desk.