Mon | Sep 26, 2022

Editorial | Who paid the PR bill is important

Published:Sunday | August 14, 2022 | 12:06 AM

There are tinges of the Manatt affair, which will titillate people who like intrigue, in the mystery of who hired, and paid the bill for, the high-powered American public relations firm that helped Kamina Johnson Smith in her ultimately failed bid for the Commonwealth secretary general’s job.

This, however, is no sniggering matter. And neither should the Government pass its opacity off as merely protecting the privacy of donors, or as a great achievement at saving the State’s coffers. For the issue again raises profound questions of governance, which are in congruence with why this newspaper, and others, lobby for full transparency over the financing of political parties, especially their election campaigns. It’s the old issue of paying pipers and calling tunes.

The attempt by Ms Johnson Smith, the foreign minister, to unseat Baroness Patricia Scotland, as the Commonwealth’s chief executive, was surprising on several fronts. First, the announcement of her candidacy came after Jamaica was among the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) states that offered “overwhelming support” to Baroness Scotland’s bid for re-election.

Then there was the suggestion that the foreign minister was the proxy candidate of Great Britain (which Ms Johnson Smith rejected as insulting) whose Tory prime minister, Boris Johnson, with support from the ‘Old Dominions’ and the UK’s Conservative-supporting tabloids, was keen to undermine the Labour peer and former political opponent.

QUESTIONS RAISED

Questions were also raised about who funded Ms Johnson Smith’s slick campaign with hints of American-style electioneering. A week ago, the Government – ahead of Prime Minister Andrew Holness’ formal response to the Opposition’s queries in Parliament – disclosed that it had directly spent J$18.1 million on the effort.

That campaign expenditure, however, didn’t include the J$25.7 million bill for the unusually large and diverse Jamaican delegation to the Commonwealth summit in Kigali, Rwanda, where the election of the secretary general took place. Neither does it cover the J$15 million that was paid, or is owed, to the PR firm, Finn Partners, for its work in support of Ms Johnson Smith’s campaign.

“The Government of Jamaica was not a party to this arrangement which was secured by corporate Jamaica,” the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) reported.

Jamaicans became aware of the engagement of Finn Partners because under the 1938 Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), Americans working on behalf of foreign principals in an attempt to influence US policy have to register those relationships with the US government and who is registered to pay the bill. Among the groups captured in the law are foreign governments and politicians, foreign companies and individuals and NGOs.

The Finn Partners’ filing with the Department of Justice named Ms Johnson Smith as its client, which, given the OPM’s statement, would be contrary to the facts, although the foreign minister would be the direct beneficiary of its efforts. This, of course, has echoes of the saga of 2009 when Bruce Golding’s administration sanctioned the hiring of the law firm, Manatt Phelps & Phillips, to lobby the Americans against their extradition of the gangster, Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke.

Initially, Harold Brady, a lawyer with strong links to the governing Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), signed the letter engaging Manatt as a consultant to the Jamaican Government. Mr Brady, however, claimed to have made an error, which he corrected. It also emerged that the JLP raised the money to pay Manatt.

In the Johnson Smith case, the substance of the issue is not so much who engaged Finn Partners as who paid, or will pay, the bill. We have no cause to doubt the information minister, Robert Nesta Morgan’s account of “several private sector companies” approaching the Government with support for Ms Johnson Smith’s candidacy and offering to help.

Said Mr Morgan in a radio interview: “... We said, ‘Well, you can help with the international PR’, and they engaged an entity outside of Jamaica to assist with the international PR.”

WHICH COMPANIES?

The issue is that Jamaicans don’t know which companies these are and whether they were stirred by ideals other than altruism and national pride, or merely a belief that Ms Johnson Smith was just the best candidate for the job. And really, their motivation shouldn’t matter.

The large principle here is transparency in governance, which, indeed, is the reason why the Americans have FARA. When the piper plays, it ensures that a hidden foreign conductor isn’t calling the tune. Or, as the Department of Justice brochure puts it, the law “helps the American people and their elected officials understand who is really behind such influence activity”. It was essentially the principle that was addressed by Patrick Robinson, a Jamaican judge on the International Court of Justice, who, in response to questions about his ascendancy to the post, noted in recent letter published by The Gleaner, that his campaign was entirely self-financed.

This principle is captured, of sorts, in the requirement that people who contribute J$1 million or more to a political party’s campaign during the reporting period have to report that contribution to the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ). Further, if those contributors, in the two years before an election and up to two years afterwards, entered contracts with the Government valued J$500,000, they have to file that information with the electoral authorities.

We, however, would like full and open disclosure, lest our democracy becomes the best one that special interests with deep pockets can buy.