Editorial | Perhaps IC should walk, en bloc
Having sustained more than a week of attacks, including suggestions that they behaved corruptly in the Andrew Holness matter, Jamaica’s four selected integrity commissioners might consider bringing the issue to a head by resigning en bloc.
The fifth commissioner, the auditor general, Pamela Monroe Ellis, is exempt from this suggestion for the fact she sits on the Integrity Commission as an ex officio member because of her office and her role as a public servant, on this front, limits her scope for independent action.
The other commissioners – the chairman, former president of the Appeal Court, Seymour Panton; retired Supreme Court judge, Lloyd Hibbert; auditor, Eric Crawford; and business consultant, H Wayne Powell – are under no such constraint. Neither is the IC’s executive director, Greg Christie, who has been a direct subject of many of the attacks.
The commissioners would take this admittedly drastic and dramatic action not as a matter of guilt, or admission of wrongdoing. Rather, the crisis it would create would concentrate minds, forcing those who wish to undermine the commission – despite protestations to the contrary – to think seriously, and with clarity, on the kind of anti-corruption agency they want for Jamaica.
If the commissioners decide against this course of action, they should, at the very least, insist on an open meeting with the Ed Bartlett-chaired parliamentary oversight committee for the IC for a frank discussion of the issues. So far, the gripings, innuendoes, calumny and smatterings of real issues against the IC have taken place behind the backs of the commissioners at sessions of a joint parliamentary committee reviewing the Integrity Commission Act and meetings of the House oversight group commission, where Executive Director Mr Christie has largely been the one who has fielded questions.
Two things have emerged from these meetings, especially the most recent ones: there is a deep hostility towards the commission, especially among the government side of the Gordon House claques; and great ignorance, real or feigned, of the law and the structure it imposes on the IC functions even among members of Mr Bartlett’s committee. That is a shortcoming that needs urgent attention.
Some of the matters that have arisen at that committee demand the presence and the authority of the full commission or its chair.
Further, it is painfully obvious that Everald Warmington, the notoriously rude governing party gadfly, oughtn’t to be a member of the oversight committee, unless he is there to be a deliberately disruptive force rather than to make serious contributions. Prime Minister Holness should have him removed.
The assault on the commission has become increasingly aggressive since its clumsy handling in February of a report into the award of contracts more than a decade ago to a friend and business partner of Prime Minister Holness. At the time Mr Holness was the education minister.
The IC’s director of investigation concluded that with respect to two contracts for work in Mr Holness’ constituency, he influenced their award to his friend’s company. As is required by the law, that finding was forwarded to the commission’s director for corruption prosecution for a ruling on whether the prime minister should be charged and prosecuted. She ruled that based on his explanation he merely made a recommendation at the request of the Social Development Commission (SDC) and the absence, at the time, of regulations from the Constituency Development Fund (CDF), Mr Holness had no charge to answer.
The investigative report, as is also required by the law, was tabled in Parliament one day. It was followed the next day by the prosecutor’s ruling that charges against Mr Holness wouldn’t be sustainable.
Notwithstanding the IC’s insistence that the peculiarity of law required the sequential publication of the documents, this newspaper holds that the matter could have been better and more creatively handled. Both reports could have reached Parliament at the same time, causing far less political fallout. Those who long hoped for the hobbling of the IC perceive an opening to act, under the guise of reform.
Curiously, Mr Warmington proposed barring the commission from investigating any corruption-related issue that happened before its establishment in 2018. He would also strip it of its independent prosecutor. Further, he proposes the removal of privilege from IC’s reports, thereby stripping the immunity from defamation enjoyed by the commissioners, the authors of the documents, and anyone who publishes or quotes from them. Frivolous claim would probably fly like confetti.
Even more dangerous is the MP’s proposal to give members of parliament, politicians, the power to impeach the commissioners and the IC’s key staff, which would make the commission a worrying place to work, except for the weak-kneed and pliant.
While Mr Warmington’s claim that IC and some staff are “tainted” and that some staff are politically exposed persons (PEPs) might be considered the rants of a maverick partisan, the stance of the justice, the statements of Delroy Chuck, the justice minister, can’t be so readily dismissed.
Mr Chuck wants an inquiry (he did not say if by a full-blown royal commission) into the handling of the Holness matter.
Having said he wants an effective anti-corruption body, Mr Chuck said this: “...But the country and this Parliament must ask itself the question … whether or not we can have trust and confidence in the present Integrity Commission, as it is composed.”
We believe we know Mr Chuck’s answer. What do Justice Panton et al think it is? More importantly, what do they intend to do?