Speaker of the National Assembly, Raphael Trotman yesterday rejected two requests by PPP/C Chief Whip Gail Teixeira for AFC MPs Khemraj Ramjattan and Cathy Hughes to be referred to the Privileges Committee of Parliament.
In his rulings he cited the length of time taken by Texeira to bring the complaints, the absence of evidence in the case of Ramjattan and in the case of Hughes ambiguity over the definition of speech.
The Speaker’s ruling triggered an accusation of bias from Teixeira at a hastily summoned press conference at the Office of the President.
Teixeira stated “the Speaker in my view in not impartial.”
She charged that the Speaker failed to address the most important fact that neither Ramjattan nor Hughes acted honourably by not disclosing their pecuniary interest in matters before Parliament. Trotman in his rejection of both requests cited the absence of prima facie evidence or proof in relation to the complaints made against both parties.
Trotman questioned the government’s intentions, stating in his ruling on Ramjattan that “if after a year has elapsed a complaint is laid against a member, it lends itself to unwanted speculation as to the motives that attended or influenced the decision to implement it.”
He continued “the Privileges Committee should not be seen as a place of convenience, but manifestly as one where serious issues are heard and determined. Bringing a complaint a year after an alleged breach of privilege should not be condoned under any circumstances unless there are good exceptional reasons why this is so. None have been proved here.”
Teixeira argued yesterday at the press conference that the issue which resulted in the request being brought against Ramjattan was as relevant up to the 2014 budget. Ramjattan had voted in favour of the Specialty Hospital in 2012, at which point he was reportedly the legal representative of one of the companies bidding, Fedders Lloyd. However, in 2013, when that company was no longer affiliated with the project, Ramjattan voted down the budget, Teixeira had claimed.
Trotman stated in his ruling that “There is no evidence to show that Hon. Khemraj Ramjattan was professionally retained by Fedders Lloyd and that at the time of participating in the debate on the Speciality Hospital he was accordingly influenced or induced to oppose the project on this basis.”
The Speaker acknowledged Standing Order 107 which states “No Member of the Assembly shall appear before the Assembly or any Committee thereof as Counsel or Solicitor for any party, or in any capacity for which he or she is to receive a fee or reward.”
Teixeira had also cited Ramjattan’s opposition to the Marriott Hotel project in her complaint.
The Speaker said however that Teixeira’s complaint that Robert Badal, owner of the Pegasus Hotel had influenced Ramjattan’s opposition to the project because the former is a financier of the AFC was without evidence.
“There is no evidence to show that Hon. Khemraj Ramjattan is/was supporting Mr. Badal’s opposition to the Marriott Hotel Project; and there is no evidence to prove that Mr. Ramjattan was offered or collected money or other advantage to support Mr. Badal in opposing the Marriott Hotel Project,” Trotman’s ruling stated.
In relation to Hughes, Trotman ruled that “contemporary ethical conduct of public officials demands that some disclosures be made,” but that no Standing Order exists that regulates or compels members do so.
On the other hand, Trotman said that in the United Kingdom, there is a specific rule that in a debate, Members must declare “any relevant pecuniary interest or benefit of whatever nature, whether direct or indirect, that he may have or may be expecting to have.”
He added that whilst the Standing Orders of the National Assembly of Guyana provide for references to be made to the Standing Orders of the United Kingdom’s House of Commons where there is no provision made, this would not be a useful exercise in this matter, as in the United Kingdom, there is a codified Code of Conduct that the Standing Orders regulate. In Guyana, he noted, there is no such Code of Conduct.
In Teixiera’s motion against Hughes it was stated that she failed to disclose the pecuniary interest in the Amaila Falls Hydro-Electric Power Project when the debates were ongoing for the Hydro Electric Bills and the Debt Ceiling motions.
Trotman contended that Hughes did not participate in the debates by speaking.
The specific Rule in the United Kingdom refers to a “debate”. A discussion of this Rule in the 24th edition of Erskine May – Parliamentary Practice centres on Members “speaking” in a debate.
In Guyana, Standing Order No. 38 -‘Time and Manner of Speaking’- refers strictly to speeches in the Assembly and not the ‘Ayes’ or ‘Nos’ of a division. Notwithstanding; if the word ‘aye’ during a division is considered “speaking”, then Hughes could be guilty of an offence. If on the other hand, the word ‘aye’ is not considered “speaking” in a debate, then Hughes did not contravene Standing Order No. 38(8), he said.
He added that there is clearly an ambiguity as to the possible interpretations and he could find no precedent to assist in resolving it.
Trotman said that Hughes’ position as the Public Relations Officer for Sithe Global Inc, the developer of the AFHP Project was well documented so far as “Hughes had been known to appear on television broadcasts promoting the interests of Sithe Global Inc. and the Amaila Falls Hydro-Power project.”
He said the timeliness of the complaint by Teixeira was therefore also an issue. “Filing a Complaint more than a year after the alleged breach of privilege arose, ought not to be entertained and encouraged unless there are good and compelling reasons advanced as to why it was not presented earlier.”
The Speaker suggested that the time was ripe for a Code of Conduct for MPs.
“It is apposite to state that in view of the frequency of requests for Members to be referred to the Privileges Committee, the National Assembly should urgently agree a Code of Conduct to guide Members in the discharge of their constitutional obligations. Some Parliaments have also enacted legislation to regulate the business of the Privileges Committee and this is something that can also be considered worthwhile”, he said.
Teixeira last night called Trotman an “opposition speaker”. She said that a precedent was now set by the Speaker’s ruling that pecuniary interests do not need to be declared by parliamentarians.
The sudden move to bring motions against the two AFC parliamentarians had sparked criticisms that the government was acting in retaliation against Trotman’s ruling to have Finance Minister Dr Ashni Singh sent to the Privileges Committee, based on a motion by APNU member Carl Greenidge and seconded by Ramjattan, over the minister’s spending of $4.5 billion without the approval of the National Assembly.
Teixeira had refused to comment on the criticisms of the timing of the administration’s decision during an interview with Stabroek News last week, stating that she would not add “conjecture on such things”. The motions were first sent to the Speaker by Teixeira on July 15.