Those honorific titles, and the need for whistleblower protection and campaign financing legislation

accountabilitywatchThere was a recent letter to the editor from a former Minister who felt that the forensic audit reports should be tabled in the National Assembly and examined by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).  However, Standing Order 82 of the Assembly states that “It shall be the duty of the Committee to examine the accounts showing the appropriation of sums granted by the Assembly to meet Public Expenditure and such other accounts laid before the Assembly as the Assembly may refer to the Committee together with the Auditor General’s report thereon”. The forensic audits were not done by the Auditor General and they do not relate to accounts showing appropriations approved by the Assembly. While it is possible for the reports to be laid in the Assembly, they cannot be referred to the PAC for detailed examination without an amendment to the Standing Orders.

A logical approach is for the reports to be referred to and examined by the boards (or sub-committees thereof) of the respective agencies involved. The forensic auditors could be requested to attend meetings of the boards to provide the necessary clarifications, after which the officials affected are given an opportunity to explain themselves and to provide clarifications in relation to the contents of the reports. The boards will then be make a determination as to the merits of the findings and recommendations, and take appropriate actions as are considered necessary.

The former Minister indicated that contents of reports were being selectively leaked to the media, designed “to cause public embarrassment than reflect professional work”. However, several of these reports are on the Ministry of Finance’s website and are therefore public documents which can be accessed by anyone interested in them.  If there were any leakages prior to the reports before being placed in the public domain, the sources of leakages could be anyone’s guess, considering the following: (a) as the audit progressed, preliminary findings were referred to the management of the concerned entity for a response; (b) preliminary draft reports were issued for management’s comment; (c) final reports were issued to the heads of agencies, among others; (d) the concerned entities submitted official responses to the reports; and (e) the above procedures were done electronically via the internet.  In relation to (e), I had indicated to the Minister within the Ministry of Finance (the coordinator of the forensic audits) my unhappiness with sending the reports to him via the email because previous experience whereby my mail was compromised and accessed by unknown persons. He suggested that I delete the emails immediately after sending the reports to him.

Those honorific titles

An honorific title is conferred on someone out of esteem or respect, and is often used in an academic setting, for example, the conferring of an honorary doctorate degree. On other occasions, it is used when addressing a social superior.  Last week’s disclosure that the Minister of the Presidency had appointed Mr. Brian Tiwari as Ministerial Advisor on Business created quite a stir even among supporters and members of the governing coalition government. For my part, I had indicated that the appointment was not only worrying but also shocking, and that the shock was even greater, considering that three senior Cabinet Ministers – Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo, Vice President Khemraj Ramjattan and the Minister of Business, Dominique Gaskin – had no knowledge of this appointment which was made on 19 January 2016 without any official announcement.

I had also stated that I was nevertheless comforted in the fact that the President rescinded the appointment one day after it was made public. I then suggested that: (a) the President needs to place a curb on the tendency of the Minister to act unilaterally and without obtaining his prior approval; and (b) the appointment of Ministerial Advisors should be made after due consideration by Cabinet; (c) once a decision is made, it should be immediately made public; and (d) all major decisions taken by the Minister without the knowledge and approval of the President and/or Cabinet should be reviewed. The President has since clarified that: (a) he personally rescinded the appointment, as he did not believe that Mr. Tiwari’s services were needed; (b) the Minister of Business is quite capable and competent, and he had not asked him for any assistance.  The President is reported to have stated that “Mr. Tiwari is not an appointee of the government. He is not performing any function and that is why the position was rescinded”.

In his defence, the Minister of State contended that the appointments had nothing to do with “a person getting or drawing down any particular benefit from the government” and that several such instruments were issued to persons who assisted in the APNU+AFC election campaign. However, one needs to appreciate the distinction between party affairs and those of the State. The honorific title of “Ministerial Advisor” falls in the latter category, and therefore some other mechanism has to be found to reward persons who made significant contributions to the APNU+AFC election campaign within the confines of that party’s structure and operations. It is inappropriate for such appointments to be made within the framework of the government structure. In the circumstances, it would appear necessary for all such honorific appointments to be rescinded. If ministerial advisors have to be appointed, such appointments have to be made strictly on the basis of merit and free of political considerations, regardless of whether the services rendered are pro bono or not.

Need for whistleblower

protection

An interesting debate played out in one section of the print media about whistleblowing. One letter writer suggested that the President should “deal with those in positions of trust who are obliged to uphold confidentiality, not those who unearth information that has not previously come to light and who report this to the authorities and the media”. He defined a whistleblower as “someone who, through their own efforts, unearths wrongdoing and corruption and brings this to the attention of authorities and/or the media. A whistleblower is not one who is paid to investigate and provide findings to a competent authority, or those whom, through the positions of trust they hold in a government have access to these confidential reports, but then leak this information to the media.

Suffice it to state that a whistleblower is a person who in the public interest exposes misconduct, alleged dishonest or illegal activity occurring in an organization. He/she does so anonymously for fear of retaliation from his/her superiors. The Guyana Power and Light fraud uncovered recently was as a result of an anonymous letter from an employee. The Enron and WorldCom accounting scandals were also the direct result of whistleblowing. These two scandals as well as others prompted Time magazine to declare 2002 as the “Year of the Whistleblower”, citing Sherron Watkins, a Vice-President of Enron; Cynthia Cooper, WorldCom’s internal auditor; and Coleen Rowley, FBI staff attorney. Rowley blew the whistle on the mishandling of the case of Zacarias Moussaoui who was believed to be one of the masterminds behind the 11 September 2001 terrorist attack in New York. These three persons were subject to harsh treatment from their employers but in the end they became national heroes. One observation made was that women are more likely to become whistleblowers not for the potential for fame and financial gain, but out of a sense of duty.  Cooper wrote a book in 2008 on the WorldCom fraud entitled “Extraordinary Circumstances: The Journey of a Corporate Whistleblower”.

Rather than advocating sanctions for whistleblowing, it is necessary at this stage in our history to have whistleblower protection legislation in place as the United States and other countries have done. In India, the related legislation provides a mechanism to investigate alleged corruption and misuse of power by public servants and also protects anyone who exposes alleged wrongdoing in government bodies, projects and offices. The wrongdoing might take the form of fraud, corruption or mismanagement. The Act will also ensure punishment for making false or frivolous complaints.

Campaign financing

legislation

We have successfully managed to hold two elections incident free – May 2015 national and regional elections; and local government elections after 22 years. The elections were declared free and fair by independent observers. One area of unfinished business relates to campaign financing which, if not regulated, can result in unfair advantage and untold damage to the democratic process. There is always going to be a tendency for winners to reward those who have contributed significantly in terms of financing for the election campaign. Such rewards may include various appointments, the award of contracts and other related benefits. In addition, there may be a tendency to turn a blind eye to acts of wrongdoing on the part of contributors.

We have recently learnt that there was ministerial intervention to prevent the Guyana Revenue Authority and the Special Organised Crime Unit from carrying out their legitimate responsibilities in respect of a particular company operating in Guyana. The company has been embroiled in various controversies and was in persistent default in its investment agreement with the Government.  While we are not suggesting that the intervention stemmed from unregulated campaign financing, we nevertheless offer our condemnation in the strongest possible terms. Political interference should be a thing of the past. The Ministry of Finance has promised to launch an investigation into the matter. We anxiously await the results.

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