It is something of a puzzle as to what inspired President Jagdeo last week to issue an ultimatum to parliamentarians who failed to make full declarations of their assets as required under the Integrity Commission Act. He might have been annoyed after the PNCR said the forensic audit of customs officials should be expanded to include senior government functionaries and corrupt business people who had acquired assets unrelated to their incomes, but that hardly seems sufficient justification to create this particular contretemps which can only do him damage.
At a press briefing on Monday Mr Jagdeo said that he would urge the Integrity Commission to publish in the national newspapers the names of those MPs who did not submit declarations to the commission within two weeks, and request that the police charge defaulters in accordance with the law. As we reported on Tuesday, the President does have supervisory authority over the commission under the Integrity Commission Act, and is empowered to request information from declarants, publish their names and hold formal enquiries. He has absolutely no power, however, to ask the police to institute charges against anyone; that is a power which resides with the Director of Public Prosecution alone.
The AFC wasted no time in responding to Mr Jagdeo’s statements, Mr Raphael Trotman being quoted in this newspaper last week as saying: “Nowhere in the free world could the head of the executive branch issue ultimatums, threaten and initiate criminal action against members of the legislature.” He went on to say that the head of state did not understand the “sacred concepts” of the rule of law and the separation of powers. In any case, he observed, in the event that the law was not complied with, there were certain prescribed actions which the commission could take without any instructions having to come from the President.
Later in the week we reported Ms Sheila Holder as indicating her unease about unauthorised persons getting access to the declarations. She told this newspaper that in the past she had been given a personal assurance by the then Chairman of the Integrity Commission, Bishop Randolph George that this would not happen. However, Stabroek News was told by Bishop George that he had submitted his resignation to the President since April 2006, a letter which has never been acknowledged. Since then, Mr Fazeel Ferouz has been the acting Chairman, a situation which caused Ms Holder to remark, “I see the acting Chairman going off with the President on business trips,” suggesting that there was no “arm’s length” to give any feeling of assurance.
This was an issue taken up by the PNCR at a press briefing on Friday in respect of the administrative arm of the commission. Opposition Leader Robert Corbin referred to “serious efforts” at “political interference” in relation to the declarations of non-government persons, and said that staff were being asked to pass on information contained in these.
The AFC had raised another issue which was taken up in more comprehensive fashion by Mr Corbin, and this was the status of the Integrity Commission. The PNCR has alleged that its members were unilaterally appointed in violation of the requirement in the law for meaningful consultation with the Leader of the Opposition. Mr Corbin filed a legal challenge over the appointment of the commissioners on the grounds of lack of consultation, but the case has been mired in the court system since 2005. As a consequence the PNCR does not recognize the legality of the current commission.
There was another issue too in relation to the commissioners, because Mr Corbin went on to ask whether the requirement that they be appointed from among persons who had experience and had shown capacity in law, the administration of justice, social service, finance, accountancy and any other discipline had been met. As it is the current members of the commission all have religious backgrounds. Apart from the former Chairman – Anglican Bishop Randolph George – there is President of the Central Islamic Organization of Guyana Fazeel Ferouz, Secretary of the Guyana Council of Churches Nigel Hazel and Director of the National Commission for the Family Pandit Rabindranauth Persaud.
Mr Corbin told reporters that although his party’s MPs had prepared their declarations, they had been instructed to withhold them from submission until a judgement had been handed down by the court. For his part, President Jagdeo appearing on NCN on Friday, said that he only wanted the parliamentarians to comply with the law, and it was just a matter of accountability and transparency in public life. He had earlier said he would meet the commission on Wednesday, but this meeting never took place.
The President clearly never thought his ultimatum through very carefully. Leaving aside the problem of the constitutionality of the Integrity Commission, and the problem of him appearing to undermine its independence by the issuing of a ukase, what at a practical level did he expect would happen? Since the PNCR certainly has good prima facie grounds for instructing its MPs to withhold their declarations until a court rules on the legality of the commission, and has already made public its stance, what would the publication of PNCR parliamentary names in the newspapers achieve? For the main opposition it would be a badge of honour, not the humiliation which is intended. And if, by serendipity, the DPP (as opposed to the President) decided to bring charges against the defaulters, would these be brought against all the opposition MPs who withhold their declarations or will they just start with one or two pour encourager les autres? Either way, it would fail to achieve the end required, bring the government into direct conflict with the opposition, and open the President to renewed charges of favouring an autocratic style.
An Integrity Commission in any country has to inspire confidence and be able to guarantee confidentiality. Whatever the High Court decides about the status of the current commission (and one does hope that it would expedite this particular case) in a country like this with its political sensitivities all the parliamentary parties have to be satisfied about the integrity, competence, objectivity and independence of its members. This is not to suggest that the current membership lacks these qualities, it is simply to say that it must be seen to be independent of government so that it will earn the trust of all sides. If the commission is not perceived as fully independent, then it will always be a bone of contention and it will never be able to carry out its functions in the way that the law intended.