Thu | Jun 17, 2021

What is influence peddling?

Published:Friday | April 27, 2012 | 12:00 AM

By Peter Espeut

When does a gift to a politician or public servant amount to a bribe? I know a senior public servant who declined all gifts at Christmas from entities who did business with his government agency, because he wished to avoid being beholden to them in any way.

When contracts were to be awarded, he did not wish to give anyone the impression that he could be distracted or influenced by any gift he might receive. So when bearers arrived with bottles of whisky or cognac, he would send them back. He considered it all to be quite improper.

Meantime, he observed almost all his colleagues accepting what they were offered. At Christmas time, some of the private offices in the state agency would resemble gift shops, being littered with gift baskets and packages gaily wrapped.

I know a former Cabinet minister who declined to accept a free pass to a hotel because he wanted to avoid giving the impression of accepting hospitality in return for political favours. At the same time, he saw many of his Cabinet colleagues accept free passes, and spend many complimentary weekends - all expenses paid.

Perks or corruption?

When does a gift to a politician or public servant amount to a bribe? Are free stadium tickets (or being a guest in the private box), free plane rides, free bird-shooting weekends, free trips to China or Japan, free computers and free holiday weekends perfectly acceptable 'perks' for being a politician or public servant, or are they good examples of political corruption?

Different countries (and states within countries) have different rules and laws governing gifts to politicians and public servants. In the USA, gifts to serving politicians are severely regulated, and the Obama administration is proposing to prohibit federal workers from receiving gifts from lobbyists - even to be taken to lunch! If taken out, they must pay for their own food! Some countries already ban all such gifts; others require them to be declared to Parliament; and others (like Jamaica) have no restrictions at all!

This topic occurs to me today because of the explanation given on Wednesday by the Office of the Prime Minister for the size of the Jamaican delegation accompanying the PM to New York. Tourism and Entertainment Minister Wykeham McNeill, the statement said, was already in the US on "official tourism business", "at no cost to the Government".

And so I wondered about the purpose of the trip, the size of Minister McNeill's delegation, and who paid for it all. I don't believe that sort of detail is a private matter; it is probably perfectly above board, but the Jamaican public has a right to know if tourism or entertainment interests in a foreign country are lobbying our minister, or are trying to 'curry favour' with our Government (the Jamaican term for 'influence peddling').

Transparency needed

How many other government ministers travel on "official government business", "at no cost to the Government"? If we genuinely want to put an end to corruption in Jamaica - and the perception of corruption - there must be transparency in these matters. This sort of information should not appear by the way, or in passing.

Over the last 10 years, Jamaica has never scored higher than 4.0 on Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index, where a score of 10 is perception of no corruption and 1.0 is perception of high corruption. Our scores of 3.3 over the last two years indicate that those interviewed perceive Jamaican officials as being quite corrupt.

Black's Law Dictionary defines bribery as the offering, giving, receiving, or soliciting of any item of value to influence the actions of an official or other person in charge of a public or legal duty. To avoid the taint of corruption - and the perception of corruption - sometimes politicians must refuse the freeness and pay their own way.

And it is not only politicians that need to be careful. I remember a few years ago criticising some Jamaican journalists who accepted an invitation to a sumptuous breakfast at a high-class hotel to listen to a proposal for a high-end housing scheme (on public land), who then wrote articles favourable to the project. Sometimes journalists must buy their own breakfast to avoid the impression of being bought and paid for!

Political campaign contributions are a type of gift to politicians, particularly open to influence peddling. To have those contributions remain secret, so that the public will remain ignorant of any influence which may have been peddled, is not acceptable in this day and age.

Peter Espeut is a sociologist and Roman Catholic deacon. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.