Columns

The Integrity Commission's obscure mission

Canute Thompson

Monday, May 20, 2019

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I listened with deep shock and disappointment on Monday, May 13, 2019 as the Integrity Commission presented itself at its first press conference since its establishment in February 2018. (Thanks to Nationwide which covered the entire event.) The commission had ostensibly called this press conference to deal with various issues circulating in the public. All members of the commission were present, except for Dirk Harrison, and given what went on to the conference one could fully understand why the respectable Harrison would not have been part of that shameful spectacle.

LOADING ON HARRISON

In my opinion, the conduct of the commission has served to bring both the commission and the notion of integrity in public office into disrepute. The first level at which the commission's conduct was despicable and distasteful is in the fact that the chair, the learned retired judge, Justice Karl Harrison, spent upwards of 25 minutes of a press conference that was slated to last one hour dealing exclusively, and in extensive detail, with employment matters related to former contractor general and fellow commissioner Dirk Harrison.

It was a shameful and painful display of poor human resource management practices and generally poor organisational management. There was no need for the kind of public disclosures of Harrison's employment issues. and while the conduct of the commission served to portray Harrison in a somewhat unfavourable light (even if unintentional), it spoke volumes to the sensitivities and judgement of the commissioners.

While some reference to Harrison would have been in order, the farthest the commission should have gone should have been to say, that: “The permanent appointment of persons to all senior posts had been delayed due to the processes of completing the transition and the merger, but the commission has now received the 'all clear' from the Ministry of Finance and the Public Service to permanently appoint ,and three top posts of director will be duly advertised, and communicated to the persons acting in those posts, and persons acting in these will be entitled to apply.”

Sharing the contents of e-mail exchanges between Harrison and the commission, referring to his renumeration package and concerns he has about his future relationship with the commission were all improper disclosures.

ROOMS ON THE BEACH SALE

Who would have thought that the concern the commission had with Harrison's report on the sale of Rooms on the Beach were related to the draft report and not the final report. And, if Harrison had addressed the concern raised about the draft what would have led to the commission being unable to “own” the report. Curiously, the commission took the view that its remit does not permit it to comment on policy. This is the statement it made in relation to assertions in the Dirk Harrison report on the sale. One is left to ask: What if a policy lends itself to, or provides a cover for, corruption? Will the commission be silent on that?

Instructively, one reporter specifically asked the commission if Harrison enjoyed its full confidence. Even more instructively, the commission ducked the question, merely saying that it had no quarrel with Harrison, and he is “one of us”. The truth is, one can have zero quarrel with someone and have zero confidence in him or her — so we learn quite a bit from the ducking of the question.

In my assessment, the commissioners landed a blow not just on the good name of an anti-corruption campaigner — though I am confident Harrison will be no worse for it — but more distressingly they have landed a body blow to the fight against public corruption and I have no confidence that Jamaica will recover from it.

FAILURE TO UPHOLD THE PRINCIPLES OF INTEGRITY

The body blow landed to the anti-corruption agenda by the Integrity Commission is as confounding as it is ironic. It is to be recalled that when the commission was appointed, Prime Minister andrew Holness gave them the mandate and mission to make Jamaica “the least corrupt place on Earth”. Yet, with that mission, the commission proceeded to speak in ways that would raise questions about the work of one of its own, and bob and weave in such a way as to leave great doubt about its commitment to its mandate.

This display of doubtful commitment to its mandate took on even greater and more frightening proportions when, in answer to the question as to what accounts for the failure of the prime minister to receive the all clear for his 2017 integrity filings the auditor general (who spoke on behalf of the commission), it only said that the commission is awaiting further documentation. One would have expected that the commission would have pronounced on how troubling it is and how bad a signal it sends for the fight against corruption, that several months after the due date, no less a person that the prime minister is not compliant with the law. The commission should not have lost the opportunity to show that it regards this as unacceptable. Having failed to do so, this Integrity Commission has further eroded confidence in its integrity and its commitment to fight corruption.

The soft and mealy-mouthed response given in relation to the failure of the prime minister to comply with the law, contrasts with the way the commission came out swinging against the suggestion by the People's National Party that the presence of the auditor general on the commission presents a conflict of interest. From whence is the aggression to a suggestion with which you disagree? And since you possess the capacity to be aggressive, where is that aggression towards the breach of the anti-corruption statute by the prime minister?

LONE SIGN OF HOPE

The lone sign of hope coming out of the press conference is the indication from the Commission that it will seek an amendment to the law so that it can comment on ongoing investigations. While it is a sign of hope, I am not too sanguine that if that change is made this current batch of commissioners will show any more guts and commitment in fighting corruption. I think Jamaica's darkest days in the fight against corruption are ahead.

Dr Canute Thompson is head of the Caribbean Centre for Educational Planning, lecturer in the School of Education, and co-founder and chief consultant for the Caribbean Leadership Re-Imagination Initiative, at The University of the West Indies, Mona. He is also author of four books and several articles on leadership. Send comments to the Observer or canutethompson1@gmail.com.


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