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Integrity Commission must fix own house before widening reach
At first glance, the Integrity Commission’s plan to widen its mandate seems like a good idea. Corruption is a major concern in Trinidad and Tobago, so the commission’s recommendations for a revised Integrity in Public Life Act to properly oversee a larger number of people in public life are laudable.
However, this is the very Integrity Commission that has had an exceedingly turbulent history over the past few years and the more pressing need is for the commission to repair its own blemished image before attempting to take on a considerably expanded role.
In order to repair that image, it needs to be able to demonstrate to the public that it is competent, thorough, transparent and impartial. The current chairman, retired businessman Ken Gordon, who was appointed last October, is the fourth chairman in as many years to preside over a commission that has been mired in one controversy after another.
The commission’s woes date back to February 2009, when four commissioners, led by John Martin, resigned two days after a High Court judge ruled that they had acted improperly in dealing with former cabinet minister Dr Keith Rowley and were guilty of “the tort of misfeasance in public office.”
Within months, a newly-appointed commission collapsed again after its chairman, Fr Henry Charles, stepped down amidst accusations of plagiarism and issues related to church law. Within a week of Charles’ resignation, the other commissioners submitted their own letters of resignation to President George Maxwell Richards.
The next chairman, Dr Eric St Cyr, had only been a few months in the post when he resigned. This came after Udecott chairman Jearlean John asked him to step down over his comments on a matter in which she was involved. The current commission is overshadowed by the bitter and very public stand-off between Gordon and suspended deputy chairman Gladys Gafoor, which has escalated into a series of legal battles. This situation has seriously impeded the commission’s work of promoting integrity, particularly among “persons in public life.”
All these incidents highlight the biggest and most difficult job currently facing the Integrity Commission—convincing the public of its own integrity. Then there is the commission’s main job of regulating the conduct of people in public life from the level of ministers of government and MPs to Permanent Secretaries, chief technical officers and members of the boards of statutory bodies and state enterprises. The commission is also responsible for examining the practices and procedures of public bodies to facilitate discovery of corrupt practices.
The public is yet to be persuaded that the commission has the capacity and the will to police all those who are included in its present mandate and to report the results in a clear and comprehensible manner—rather than the brusque, opaque style it adopted in its September 12 letter concerning the Prime Minister’s sister Vidwatie Newton, which offered more confusion than clarity.
Rather than expanding its mandate at present, it would be more useful for the Integrity Commission to focus on strengthening its performance so that more of the people in its current jurisdiction comply with integrity requirements. The Integrity Commission also needs to do more to raise public awareness of its functions and powers.
After years of setbacks and delays, Mr Gordon and his fellow commissioners have the unenviable task of restoring stability and respectability to an institution which has an important role in strengthening the country’s democracy, but which itself rests on a shaky foundation.
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