Transparency Institute Guyana Inc. (TIGI) yesterday welcomed the laying of misconduct in public office charges against former Finance Minister Dr. Ashni Singh and former head of the National Industrial and Commercial Investments Limited (NICIL) Winston Brassington, saying that it is part of holding public officials liable for their behaviour while in office.
Making it clear that it was not taking a position against either man or pronouncing on their culpability, which is to be settled by a court, TIGI said the charges are “a welcome disruption” to impunity for corruption and malfeasance in office that exists in Guyana.
“In order to end impunity for corruption, the undocumented buddy system in which the major political camps agree to criticise but not prosecute each other for malfeasance must end. Public officers must know that they will be held accountable for what they do with public resources,” a statement from the corruption watchdog group said.
It, however, criticised pronouncements by politicians on the case and asserted that they are improper and appear as attempts to pervert the course of justice and play on the emotions of the citizens.
Singh and Brassington have been jointly charged with three counts of misconduct in public office over the sale of three tracts of government land on the East Coast of Demerara, between December, 2008 and May, 2011.
In one instance, it is alleged that the property was sold below market value, while in the other two the deals went ahead without proper valuations of the land.
The charges stem from criminal investigations conducted by the Special Organised Crime Unit (SOCU) into the findings of a forensic audit of NICIL.
The TIGI statement added that the organisation welcomed the attempt to institute charges against current ministers of government for their conduct in office. (Those were filed by opposition parliamentarian Anil Nandlall but were all discontinued by the Director of Public Prosecutions Shalimar Ali-Hack, who had pointed out that no report was made to the police hence no investigation took place.)
“TIGI believes that any current or former government official or employee who mismanaged or misappropriated state resources should be held accountable and where appropriate be made to make amends inclusive of returning what was taken or given away. As long as there is merit in the matters identified, the currency of alternative motives is of little importance. Hence, given the matters involved, we hold to our view whether or not it is perceived that the charges stemmed from retaliatory politics,” it added.
TIGI also took aim at the criticisms of the charges against Singh and Brassington. The body offered its perspective, which seeks to clarify the ongoing debate in the press and in social spaces concerning political motivation, race and the fact that only former officials have been charged by SOCU.
The statement pointed out that SOCU and the State Assets Recovery Agency (SARA) were established subsequent to the 2015 change in government and the legal framework for SARA was finalised more recently. The first set of cases that SARA was expected to address were those that would be based on the findings of the forensic audits that were done post-elections, TIGI said that given that the forensic audits focused on the operations of the previous government it would seem “illogical” to expect that the first set of charges would not be against members of the former government.
“Prior to the charges, the PPP/C had used the very fact that no charges were filed to criticise the current government and to claim vindication. The current PPP/C rhetoric therefore appears to amount to taunting the government about its inability to take action then crying foul when action is taken,” the statement said.
It added that on the matter of race, one only needs to ask who the holders of public offices and of senior posts in the public service in the period covered by the forensic audits were. “Of course, this does not mean that only people of a particular ethnicity held all the offices, but probability would seem to be in favour of individuals of East Indian descent. It is therefore likely that when former public officials are charged, many would be of East Indian descent without automatically evidencing racial profiling,” TIGI argued. This, it said, does not mean that there is no racial profiling but rather that a charge of racial profiling would require more substantive justification than that provided to date and should not involve omission of the fact that the first case filed and which is still ongoing is against two individuals – former Minister Public Service Jennifer Westford and the Chief Personnel Officer Margaret Cummings – who are of African descent.
According to TIGI, one of the issues cited in the argument is the fact that SARA and SOCU have not addressed more recent matters that have emerged under the current government. While noting that this is a reasonable argument which TIGI is inclined to support, the group reminded that it made a formal request of the SARA director for the ExxonMobil signing bonus matter to be addressed. “However, we note that it took nearly three years for the charges against Dr. Singh and Mr. Brassington to be formally filed and this should help to put into perspective the timeframe within which we might expect more recent matters to be addressed,” the statement said.
Notwithstanding, TIGI argued that SARA and SOCU are not absolved of responsibility to deal with current matters and it said it has taken note that it has not indicated that the more recent matters lack merit. TIGI said it will hold the two entities accountable for handling matters that have arisen under the current government as much as it supported the pursuit of matters that arose under the PPP/C.
Meanwhile, TIGI stressed that both SARA and SOCU have a major problem with their respective public image and this will not be resolved by neglect.
With regards to SARA, it was pointed out that it is improper for officials to be in the news as often as they have been on the kinds of matters highlighted. “It is highly inappropriate for a member of the upper management of SARA to have threatened people on social media… SARA’s mandate is too important for it to be compromised by any single individual,” the statement said, before adding that TIGI was “floored” by the fact that SARA was “burglarised and wonder at the confidence this inspires in its international partners and in Guyanese.”
SARA, the statement noted, is in need of a clear and transparent policy on case selection and on the basis for deciding whether to pursue civil or criminal prosecution and on the circumstances under which it will allow individuals to return assets and avoid prosecution. “The transparency component of this recommendation means that the policy should be publicly available so that decisions made can be checked against the policy. The director of SARA has indicated that such a policy is forthcoming and we therefore call for urgency in this matter. In the absence of an appropriate and transparent policy, SARA will be unable to address suspicions of partiality,” it said.
With respect to SOCU, TIGI said it is “alarmed” at the regularity with which photographs and headlines about the arrest and questioning of former government officials and employees appear in the press, and the kind of access that the press has to ongoing investigations.
“The press is not in the wrong for such reporting, rather we question how it seems to know what will happen before it does so that it can be in position to capture the images that it does. One wonders at the comfort of SOCU’s international partners with the current state of affairs,” it said, before adding that unless SOCU establishes clear policies and strategies to prevent “leaks and other occurrences” that can compromise its investigations, it will be unable to address the perception that it is a tool to embarrass the former government and is not independent of the influence of the “executive and the Attorney General in particular.”