Importance of financial disclosures of public officials

Background

The re-trial and subsequent acquittal of Mr Basdeo Panday has been in the news recently. The former Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago was charged for his failure to disclose to the Integrity Commission for the years 1997 to 1999 a London bank account, contrary to the Integrity in Public Life Act. He was convicted in 2006 but appealed the court’s ruling. On appeal the conviction was quashed and a re-trial ordered and on 26 June, 2012 Panday was acquitted in the magistrate’s court.

This case highlights the importance of financial disclosures of officials holding public office as one of the mechanisms to minimize the extent to which corruption may exist in government. It also brings to focus the work of the Guyana Integrity Commission whose responsibility it is to monitor and review annual declarations of assets and liabilities of senior government officials and politicians, and to promulgate a code of ethics to which these officials and politicians are required to adhere.

Provisions of the  Integrity Commission Act

Guyana’s Integrity Commission Act 1997 provides for the establishment of an Integrity Commission for the purpose of securing the integrity of persons in public life. The commission consists of a chairman and not less than two or more than four other persons appointed by the president after consultation with the leader of the opposition. Appointment is for such period, not less than a year, as may be specified by the president. Members are also eligible for re-appointment. Three members of the commission shall constitute a quorum. The commission may also employ a secretary and such other persons required for the proper discharge of its functions, including the retention of the services of professional persons.

Before 30 June of each year, every person in public life is required to make a declaration to the commission, giving full, true and complete particulars of assets and liabilities as at the end of the preceding year and income for that year, including those of their spouses and children. Schedule I of the Act specifies the list of persons who are required to make a declaration under this Act. This includes ministers of the government, members of the National Assembly and senior public servants.

The commission may make such enquiries to verify or determine the accuracy of the submissions and may request further particulars. Where an eligible person fails to make a declaration or to provide additional information as requested by the commission, that fact shall be published in the Gazette and in a daily newspaper. The penalty for the failure to make a declaration or to provide additional information requested by the commission is on summary conviction a fine of $25,000 and imprisonment of not less than six months and not more than one year. If the offence is non-disclosure, the magistrate shall order disclosure within a specified time. The failure to comply with such an order would result in a further fine of 10,000 for each day of non-compliance.

Schedule II of the Act provides for a code of conduct for every person in public life. The code relates mainly to the acceptance of money, property, benefits and gifts; discriminatory conduct; private interest conflicting with public duties; the use of public property; and offensive sexual comments. Penalties for violating the code of conduct are the same as above.

Within three months of the close of the year, the commission is required to submit to the president a report containing an account of its activities for that year and any difficulties, if any, experienced by the commission in the performance of its functions. The report is also required to be laid before the National Assembly within 60 days.

Compliance with Act

Despite the passing of the Act in 1997, it was not until 1999 that the first commissioners were appointed exclusively from the religious community. Arguably, they would have lacked the relevant skills to properly evaluate the declarations made to the commission and therefore it would have been necessary for the commission to engage the services of professional persons. However, there was no evidence that this was done.

The commissioners were re-appointed after their tenure of office expired but without consultation with the opposition leader, as required by the Act. This prompted the then leader of the opposition to take legal action in May 2005 to nullify the appointments, and at the time of writing the matter was still pending in the courts. In April 2006, the chairman of the commission resigned and had not since been replaced. In addition, since his resignation, there was no sitting of the commission for want of a quorum.

At a press conference held on 15 January 2008, the president had disclosed that a large number of members of the National Assembly had not made their declarations to the commission and urged that the commission publish the names of the defaulters. Some opposition members of the assembly have argued that since the re-appointment of the commissioners was illegal, they would be condoning with an illegal act if they were to file their returns with the commission. They preferred to await the outcome of the court action.

More recently, the prime minister, in a motion in the National Assembly, urged all MPs to comply with the requirements of the law. The latest information, however, is that there are currently no commissioners in place, and the estimates of expenditure provide for only two persons to staff the commission’s secretariat, namely a chief executive officer and an administrative assistant. The amended motion called on the president to take urgent measures to appointment the members of the commission.

Since the work of the commission is to a large extent confidential in nature, the only source of information regarding its activities is its annual report to the National Assembly. However, it could not be determined whether any such report was presented to the Assembly. As a result, the effectiveness of the Integrity Commission’s work over the years and the extent of its compliance or non-compliance with the Act could not be determined.

It would nevertheless be fair to conclude that the effectiveness of the work of the commission would have been adversely affected by the following:

The commission has been functioning without a chairman since April 2006;

There were no sittings of the commission since the resignation of the chairman;

No Commissioners are currently in place;

The staffing of the Commission’s secretariat is inadequate.

Conclusion

Transparency Guyana considers the above situation with regard to the ineffective functioning or non-functioning of such an important statutory body to be most unsatisfactory and indeed counter-productive to the fight against corruption. Given recent official recognition that corruption needs to be tackled and given the increased perception that corruption is possibly at an all-time high in Guyana, which is also reflected every year in the continued low ranking on Transparency International’s Annual Corruption Perception Index, TIGI urges the government to take appropriate measures to ensure an effective and fully functioning Integrity Commission to minimize the extent to which corruption is perceived to exist.

Email: trans.inst@yahoo.com

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