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Integrity body in tailspin again: After seven months deputy chairman quits
The Integrity Commission has been thrown into a tailspin yet again, this time by the resignation of its deputy chairman, former High Court Judge Sebastian Ventour, who served for only seven months on the commission. This means that President Anthony Carmona may have to search for another candidate to fill the post of deputy chairman. Ventour, who retired in 2012, was appointed a judge for yesterday only, as he had to deliver three outstanding judgements, including one in a case involving Mora Ven holdings Ltd versus Krishna Persad and Associates Ltd. In his letter of resignation, Ventour explained that as a member of the commission, he was prevented by law from delivering the judgments. The Office of the President issued a release yesterday to say that the President swore in Ventour as a temporary judge yesterday, on the advice of the Judicial and Legal Services Commission (JLSC), after he resigned from the Integrity Commission on Wednesday. The JLSC is headed by the Chief Justice.
Ventour’s resignation means the work of the commission has been halted as there is no one with a legal background to constitute the commission’s board. Key investigations could be temporarily suspended, such as the e-mail probe and a request by the Opposition to probe Attorney General Anand Ramlogan’s purchase of two Range Rover SUVs using tax exemptions as a state official. Questions have also been raised over Ventour’s locus standi for writing judgments, since he retired from the bench in 2012. Concerns were also raised over whether Ventour may not only have breached the code of ethics for judges but also have contravened the regulations for members of the commission. In response to the developments, chairman of the Integrity Commission Ken Gordon said the work of the commission would not be affected because of Ventour’s resignation. Gordon said in 2013 when Gladys Gafoor, then deputy chairman of the commission was suspended the commission continued its work. “I am assuring you that the commission can do other things apart from meeting, (like) the other supporting things (such as) preparation and so on, that’s how we handled it last year,” he added.
Gordon said he expected President Anthony Carmona to act promptly on the reappointment of a commissioner. Asked whether Ventour doing judicial work while still working in the commission could be considered to a conflict of interest, Gordon said: “I think that’s an assumption which is not quite correct. They (the cases) were prepared but the point is that he couldn’t deliver them.”
Gordon said he was optimistic that Ventour would be re-appointed to the commission within a matter of days. Asked whether he believed the image of the commission was tarnished due to Ventour’s resignation, he said: “Absolutely no way.” — with reporting by Nadaleen Singh
Questions to be answered: Senior Counsel Dana Seetahal said Ventour’s temporary appointment should have been made immediately after he left the bench so that he could complete the judgments. “The sequence of events suggests he was made a temporary judge only for the purpose of the delivering the judgments, which suggests that prior to his reappointment, he must have been deliberating and contemplating these judgments, which is the work of a judge,” she pointed out. “That means he would have been doing that when he was a member of the commission which law does not permit a judge to sit as a one of its members,” Seetahal said.
Saying the matter needed to be explained immediately, Seetahal maintained no one should be doing the work of a judge when in fact they were not one. “Secondly, doing the work of a judge when that person is a member of the Integrity Commission, I would expect the Judiciary explains this, as it is not the first time that a retired judge has been appointed as a temporary judge to deliver judgments, and the same questions keep arising,” Seetahal added.
She recommended that a proper extension should be granted immediately after a judge retired so he or she could complete outstanding judgments. Echoing Seetahal’s view, Attorney General Anand General said it was “not desirable” for a judge who has retired subsequently to deliver a judgment and every effort must be made to ensure that judgments are delivered during the tenure of judges. Describing Ventour’s resignation as a “complete shock and disappointment,” Ramlogan said it had left a void at a time when the commission was stabilising in the aftermath of so many fumbles and false starts. Ventour was sworn in on July 1, 2013 to serve on the commission. At that time questions arose as to whether or not there was a conflict of interest, as Ventour was serving on the commission and held a government posting on the Constitutional Reform Commission. He stepped down from that commission the following month.
What the law says
Section 4(5) of the Integrity in Public Life Act says: “A person shall not be qualified to hold office as a member of the commission where he is a person in public life or a person exercising a public function.”
Investigations could continue—Al-Rawi
Attorney Faris Al-Rawi, a PNM Senator, said the commission could still function but to a limited extent. He said the commission could still conduct investigations but when it came to decision-making it was handicapped, especially since Ventour held a critical role. “Even though the constitution of the commission itself is prejudiced it is possible that work continuing in the commission will proceed. “The ability to make decisions may become difficult and we hope that the work of the commission would not be stymied by any undue delay in the appointment of an appropriate person,” Al-Rawi added.
For years the Integrity Commission has been mired in controversy:
• 2009: Chairman John Martin and all the commissioners resigned in the wake of a damning High Court judgment which found it had acted in bad faith and was guilty of misfeasance in connection with a report which led to a criminal investigation of Diego Martin West MP Dr Keith Rowley’s role in the Landate affair.
The court ruled the commission should have given Rowley a hearing before referring the matter to the DPP.
• 2011: The cloud of controversy continued when within hours of its formation, retired Justice of Appeal Zainool Hosein resigned, saying he had been promised the post of deputy chairman but it was instead given to Jeffrey McFarlane.
• A week later, its chairman Fr Henry Charles (now deceased) discovered he could not serve on the commission according to canon law and was forced to quit. He also revealed he had plagiarised the work of two writers in his T&T Guardian column.
•Dr Eric St Cyr relinquished his position as chairman after Udecott chairman Jearlean John threatened legal action because he incorrectly and prematurely told a reporter the commission was investigating John.
• 2012: Gladys Gafoor was suspended by former president Maxwell Richards as deputy chairman. She challenged the move in court but lost.
• 2013: The commission’s current chairman Ken Gordon found himself in controversy for having a private meeting at his home with Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley relating to the emailgate investigation. Gordon has maintained he did nothing wrong.