While frowning on the opposition’s resistance to the call for MPs to fully declare their assets, President Bharrat Jagdeo yesterday announced that new consultations would be held to “resuscitate” the Integrity Commission.
Jagdeo told a news conference at the Office of the President that he would also extend the original two-week deadline he set for defaulting parliamentarians to make declarations, expressing the hope that “good sense would prevail” and there would be compliance by all public officials. He also dismissed concerns about the legality of the commission–a point of contention for the parliamentary opposition–as an ingenuous excuse, while also claiming that despite PNCR leader Robert Corbin’s public stance he has been making declarations. “I want to remove any excuses opposition leaders have,” he explained, adding that it would be hypocritical for members of the opposition to urge non-compliance, when they have been criticising the government for corruption and calling for the enactment of freedom of information legislation. “I hope we will not lose sight of what is at stake here: How can we say to the head of the customs department and other agencies that they have to comply when members of the legislature are saying they are not complying with the law?”
Corbin yesterday told Stabroek News that he would await the actual start of consultations before pronouncing on the development. On the question of his making declarations to the commission, he said he would stand by public statements he has already made on the issue.
A week earlier, Jagdeo issued an ultimatum to all parliamentarians, giving two weeks notice to submit declarations to the commission or face having their names published in the national newspapers and possible criminal charges for breaching the law. But both the main opposition PNCR and the AFC publicly repudiated the president’s ultimatum. They criticised his decision to usurp the authority of the independent commission, while expressing concern that the body was being used as a political tool by the executive to persecute members of the opposition.
The President yesterday accused the opposition of turning the issue into a “political football” and criticised them for launching a “PR offensive” around what he dismissed as “excuses not to comply.” He insisted that despite concerns about the legality of the commission, the law caters for a permanent mechanism in the form of its secretariat, run by a chief executive officer (CEO). “…So regardless of whether you have difficulties with the commission or not, you have to submit declarations,” he said, “I would think as the ones who make the laws, MPs would set the example for the rest of the country.”
Jagdeo defended his decision to intervene, stating that the commission had not taken any steps to deal with defaulters. He said it was clear that many sections of the government apparatus have not worked well, since many people don’t want to take steps against “so-called big boys in society.” As a result, he pointed to there being fear of penalty and discrimination by a commission mandated to ensure compliance by ministers, MPs and other groups. “They shouldn’t have put me in a position of having to threaten them,” he said, adding that members concerned about disclosing their assets and holdings should not be in public life.
The commission’s secretariat continues to function daily, with its main task being the collection of statements of income and assets from senior public officials and MPs. But its legal authority of has been in question since its members were appointed by the President in 2004. Corbin, as opposition leader, argued that he was not consulted according to the law and filed a suit in the High Court the next year, challenging the tenure of the commissioners.
Corbin has said that although the party’s MPs have prepared declarations for submission, they have been instructed to withhold them until a decision is made by the court.
Asked why there was no consultation then, Jagdeo said: “I didn’t feel they were merited. There was already a commission in place–a properly composed commission.” He later added, “In my view, consultations were held with him,” adding that the claim of there being no consultation was a “charade” that was played out over and over. He referred to a similar claim about the appointment of the Police Commissioner. He explained that the claim was made in that instance because the prescribed process was not followed, with Corbin requesting that he write him a latter to which he would respond. “We discussed it [the appointments to the Integrity Commission] many times. The Leader of the Opposition is very convenient about many of these matters,” Jagdeo said.
Meanwhile, explaining why he never acknowledged the 2006 resignation of the commission’s Chairman Bishop Randolph George, Jagdeo said there was reluctance as he thought that George was hounded by the opposition. He called George a person of integrity and said he thought he should have continued to head the body. “I don’t believe in bullying people,” he said.
Meanwhile, he also hoped for support on the issue from civil society and members of the donor community, saying that the latter group has always been arguing for transparency in public life in the developing world.