Sun | Jun 16, 2024

Editorial | Entrench IC, others now

Published:Wednesday | March 29, 2023 | 12:52 AM
Leader of the Opposition Mark Golding
Leader of the Opposition Mark Golding

Happily, Mark Golding has made it clear that the Opposition will not be party to the gutting of the Integrity Commission (IC). Instead, the People's National Party (PNP) would back entrenching the commission in Jamaica's Constitution, although Mr Golding says that he would wait a bit longer for that to happen.

With Mr Golding having staked out his position, Prime Minister Andrew Holness must declare where he stands on this matter, including whether Everald Warmington's proposals last week that would effectively neuter the IC have his imprimatur or tacit approval. For, as Mr Holness is probably aware, there is the presumption that while it was Mr Warmington who spoke, the message was not only his.

Mr Warmington, it is felt, flew a kite on behalf of the Government. The member of parliament's (MP) history of uncivil behaviour and outrageousness provide plausible deniability to others, on whose behalf he may have acted.

Established in 2018 as the successor to three legacy agencies, the IC is an overarching anti-corruption body empowered to investigate corruption-related complaints against legislators and public officials. It also monitors the award and execution of government contracts.

Last week, Mr Warmington, a member of the governing Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and a minister without portoflio, went to a parliamentary committee with a long list of proposals for the ostensible reform of the IC that would leave only a shell of what its conceptuliser, the former JLP prime minister, Bruce Golding, intended the commission to be.

Under Mr Warmington's prescription, the IC would be barred from investigating matters that predated its 2018 establishment, including, presumably, those that were already on the agenda of one of its legacy agencies, the Office of the Contractor General.

CIRCLING THE IC

Additionally, he would strip the commission of its independent prosecutor, as well as bring the commission directly under the thumbs of Parliament to make it easier for politicians to hound out pesky commissioners and its independent investigators and prosecutors on the pretext of impeachment for misbehaviour.

The jackals and buzzards of Gordon House, across the political divide, are circling the IC because they perceive it to be wounded after its recent clumsy handling of reports into the actions of Prime Minister Holness several years ago – when he was minister of education – on whether he improperly influenced the award of contracts to a friend and business colleague.

The IC's director of investigations concluded that Mr Holness broke government procurement rules and, therefore, the law. As is required by the Integrity Commission Act, those conclusions were sent to the corruption prosecutor to determine whether Mr Holness did indeed have a case to answer. As is also required by the law, the investigator's report was sent to Parliament for tabling in the House.

However, less than 24 hours later, after much public discussion on the investigator's recommendations, the commission caused to be tabled in Parliament the prosecutor's ruling that Mr Holness – based on his explanation of what he did and the absence of rules at the time governing the operation of the Constituency Development Fund – did not have a case to answer.

The Integrity Commission insists it followed the law – and it did, to the letter. This newspaper believes, however, that with creative thinking, the IC would not have so shackled itself to become prey to those who would pick on its flesh and clean its bones. Yet, nothing the IC did was so egregious as to warrant a full-scale assault.

GRAB THE OPPORTUNITY

Instead, it was an opportunity to advance discussions on how to fix weaknesses in the IC Act, and other laws – including around two dozen identified by the commission – to enhance Jamaica's capacity to deal with corruption, which seven in 10 Jamaicans say is a major problem. Indeed, nearly half (46 per cent) of Jamaicans say they would tolerate a military coup to combat corruption.

In that regard, Bruce Golding's remarks when being sworn in as prime minister nearly 16 years ago remain relevant. He said: “Corruption in Jamaica is much too easy, too risk-free. We are going to make it more difficult, more hazardous, with stiff penalties for violations.”

Among Mr Golding's proposals was the establishment of “a special prosecutor to investigate and prosecute persons involved in corruption”. That idea evolved to the current single anti-corruption agency, in which resides, separately, an independent investigator and prosecutor for corruption matters. The latter – less aggressive than many people hoped – operates within the confines of the constitutional powers of the director of public prosecutions.

This newspaper disagrees with Mark Golding that Jamaica needs to wait to constitutionally entrench the Integrity Commission. Mr Warmington's assault provides a powerful case for why it should happen now. We should grab the opportunity of the work of the recently launched Constitutional Reform Committee to get it done. The Electoral Commission of Jamaica and the public defender should also, at the same time, be fixed in the Constitution.

Prime Minister Holness must now give his verdict on these proposals, the broad mechanisms for which can be agreed within the first week that the Constitutional Reform Committee formally begins its work.