Conflict of interest a huge problem here – TIGI

Transparency Institute Guyana Inc today said that conflict of interest here is  a huge problem.

A statement by the group follows:

Conflict of interest – Housing Minister and the Minister of Public Telecommunications

Recently, two cases about conflicts of interest have emerged in the public domain. These cases involve the issuance of contracts to (1) the husband of the junior minister of housing by the Central Housing and Planning Authority and (2) the firm of the Minister of Public Telecommunications by the Department of Energy.

In the latter situation, the minister has indicated that she had relinquished control of the day-to-day operations of the firm prior to the contract being issued and that she was unaware of the award before it was mentioned in the public domain (see Demerara Waves, April 10, 2019). The revised code of conduct for public officers states in Article 4 (3) that “A person in public life shall – (c) refuse or relinquish any outside employment, shareholdings or directorships which creates or is likely to create a conflict of interest.” The view that individuals should give up their private firms to take up ministerial positions is therefore relevant based on the code of conduct; however, it is not the only approach available and we do not recommend it as the only thing that can be done to address such conflicts of interest. Article 4 (1) (b) of the code provides for seeking guidance from the Integrity Commission on what steps to take and this is separate from declaring interest in a firm.

We are not clear on whether the actions taken by the minister were based on guidance received from the Integrity Commission or whether they were self-determined. We argued in our April 22, 2017 statement on the draft code of conduct (featured more widely on April 24, 2017) that the appropriate steps to take to address a conflict of interest should not be up to the discretion of the person in the conflict of interest situation (Stabroek News, April 22, 2017).

An overarching issue is that based on the code of conduct, the minister would need to have made or participated in making a decision that she ought to have known furthers her private interest or that of a family member or some other entity (Article 4 (2), code of conduct). Indicating ignorance about a contract award is therefore not enough. However, if ignorance of the award means that the minister did not participate in any such decisions or any fora at which the matter was discussed or a relevant decision was made and did not otherwise influence the process, she would not have acted on the conflict of interest.

Nevertheless, even when a minister who owns a firm has not acted directly on an existing conflict of interest, there is the possibility that favoritism can be shown to his/her firm due to the known association with the government. Examination of the procurement procedures would provide important insights on the potential for such an occurrence. In this regard, the Ministry of the Presidency has indicated that there was no impropriety in the award (see Kaieteur News, April 11, 2019). We urge however, that to substantiate this claim, refute the assertions of those who claimed otherwise and concurrently strengthen public confidence, the Ministry should release information on the procurement process.

For us to make progress in relation to transparency and corruption perception, it is important that we address the issues that arise decisively and in ways that close opportunities for recurrence. Establishing a clear policy on specific actions that should be taken by minsters and other public officials who have firms that compete for local business especially with the government would enhance our attempts to address conflict of interest in government. We should also recognize that the code of conduct for public officers is weak. It fails to articulate any specific penalties for breaches and it should be strengthened.

In relation to the situation at the ministry of housing, TIGI agrees with the concerns that have been expressed. In fact, we have indicated that the contract awarded to the husband of the junior minister of housing should be reviewed and it is great that steps have been taken to have this done. Though the concern about whether or not the minister and her husband became officially married by the time the contract was issued is a legitimate one, marriage is not the ultimate test. Marriage is a fairly safe and conservative standard that can be applied in the absence of additional information about the relationship. Additional information could be, for example, whether or not the individuals were already living together or were known to have a relationship or friendship even if they were not married. The relationship is the key issue and focusing on the relationship brings into relevance several kinds including familial, friendship, having attended the same secondary school, having been members of the same organization and many others.

Conflict of interest is a huge problem in Guyana. In one of our outreach programs some years ago, the information received conveyed great concern about a relationship of one party on a tender board and a person outside. The concept of conflict of interest should span the whole spectrum of situations where an influential official of an organization goes out of his/her way to find a friend to fill a lucrative or influential position in violation of the minimum requirements for appointment to that position, to the obvious one where the recruit emerges as one in an officially recognized relationship such as husband and wife.

But there is something especially pernicious about this situation which has nothing to do with conflict of interest per se, i.e., the circumstances which caused the attention to be drawn to it (apart from the question that arises as to whether it would have remained unidentified if someone had not reported experiencing financial harm). We are learning that a local company – even one connected to a minister of government – is failing to pay its workers. This comes at a time when Guyanese workers of a foreign company have just won a tentative victory over a foreign company with a reputation for ill-treatment of workers. This is another issue that causes us to wonder whether the persons who end up as our leaders appreciate the vast responsibility placed upon them to ensure the interests of our society as a whole are properly safe-guarded.

Could this be a country with a history of having had to fight every step of the way over a period of centuries for workers’ dignity? Could this be the country where our ancestors have lost their lives in the fight for a fair wage? How are we to ensure that it is not open season on Guyanese workers of foreign companies when local companies connected to high officials treat their workers with contempt? This conflict of interest situation provides Guyanese with an opportunity for reflection on the companies that will be generated in the petroleum economy and on whether our elected leaders will have the consciousness of history to take steps to safeguard the interest of the Guyanese workforce.

 

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