Columns

Thanks, Mr Christie; walk good!

Claude Robinson

Sunday, December 02, 2012    

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After seven years of fighting corruption with little reward, Contractor General Greg Christie has called it quits.

True to his expressed desire earlier this year to Governor General Sir Patrick Allen, the contractor general did not seek an extension of his contract which expired last Friday, November 30. Nor, as far as we know, did the Portia Simpson Miller Administration entreat him to change his mind. So, he walks away from the leadership of the country's top anti-corruption agency without fanfare from the State and political officials he had been monitoring.

We know from his final report to Parliament in October that Mr Christie, though proud of his work and achievements in the job, is saddened that he did not get more political support to do a better job to reduce the corrosive effects of corruption on the Jamaican society and economy.

"I must confess that I have become extremely despondent about the deafening silence of our leaders, both within and without the political divide, and the vacuous absence of the "political will" that is now desperately required to decisively combat corruption in Jamaica, and to empower and support the Office of the Contractor General in its efforts to ensure that its mandates are effectively discharged," he said in his 2011 report.

"The political will of which I speak requires the State, led by the incumbent Administration, to take the requisite steps to ensure that good governance structures that are compliant with international best practices, as well as a comprehensive and independent anti-corruption institution framework are firmly set in place," he said.

In his seven years in the job, Mr Christie was never been known to mince words. He wrote a lot; he defined his mandate broadly to give him the authority to look into just about anything to do with public expenditure; and he has run up against both PNP and JLP administrations, as well as some agencies, including the Director of Public Prosecutions.

The Office of Contractor General was established by an Act of Parliament in 1983 and became operational in 1986. Its mandate was "to monitor the award and the implementation of Government of Jamaica contracts to ensure, among other things, that they are awarded impartially and on merit and in circumstances which do not involve impropriety or irregularity".

To facilitate the effective discharge of his functions, the contractor general was, among other things, accorded the powers of a Judge of the Supreme Court of Jamaica, with wide quasi-judicial powers of enquiry, search, discovery and subpoena.

In his final report Mr Christie lamented that "after 25 years of its operational existence, the OCG has been unable to effectively attain its stated objectives. Today, primarily because of its structural deficiencies, it is viewed by many, and quite correctly so, as a paper tiger". He pleaded for a real tiger, but sadly, he was only the paper kind to the very end.

Few would disagree with his description of his tenure as the country's fourth contractor general as a time that was "productively and energetically spent".

His accomplishments include a dramatic increase in the number of government contracts monitored, some 11,000 in 2011 compared to an average of 350 before his appointment; completion of 58 special investigations, 40 enquiries and 24 audits; and, in his words, "elevating the profile of the OCG to what it should be, which is a highly visible, active, independent, professional and apolitical anti-corruption organisation".

"Additionally, we take immense pride in the fact that we have been dispassionate in the discharge of our mandates, and that we have never hesitated to call a spade a spade, or to bring to the fore the incidence of corruption, irregularity or impropriety in public contracting in Jamaica, wherever and whenever we have seen it."

For all these things and more, Mr Christie has done a very good job in getting wider public understanding of the high price that ordinary citizens pay when public resources are wasted through corruption; he has demanded and achieved greater levels of accountability. He deserves the thanks and commendation of the entire country.

What's next for the anti-corruption struggle?

As Mr Christie rides off into his sunset, there has been considerable speculation about who will succeed him and whether the bar that he has set will be lowered. At the time of writing (Thursday) there was no announcement of a successor.

Some civil society groups have pressed, unsuccessfully so far, for wide public consultation on the appointment of the next contractor general. The underlying concern is that the Administration may be tempted to appoint someone who will be less zealous and combative than Mr Christie.

The new person will have big shoes to fill and important issues for resolution. One issue, often expressed in Government circles, is that the procurement process and the awarding of contracts can be so slow and cumbersome as to frustrate the timely procurement of goods and services that are essential to the delivery of Government services.

Another is that there is an inherent conflict between development and accountability. The recent dispute between the Government and the OCG over the failed attempt to appoint an oversight panel for three important development/investment projects was cast in this light, namely, as a struggle between the urgency of economic development and job creation versus the need for probity and accountability in the award and monitoring of government contracts.

That firestorm about government contracts and procurement rules was ignited last April 24 when Dr Omar Davies, minister of transport and works, told Parliament that the Administration would establish an Independent Oversight Panel (IOP) to oversee the three major projects which the Government is banking on to deliver growth and jobs.

"....The contractor general has his role to play and there is no attempt to block him in doing that, but this is not simply about investigations and probing; it is a question of economic development," Dr Davies said.

As I wrote at the time, "It is not either/or. Both are absolutely essential. The Jamaican people have largely been deprived of both for most of the 50 years of political independence. We deserve better and, as we prepare to start the next 50 years of the national project, the people must demand that our leaders deliver on both counts."

Perhaps the most important issue was Mr Christie's insistence that there should be a single anti-corruption agency, incorporating the OCG and others. The new agency should be empowered to criminally investigate and to independently prosecute all corruption and related criminal offences as the contractor general has suggested several times.

In his parting shot, Mr Christie states there's simply no political will for such an agency. In his view, the incumbent Administration should take the lead "to put in place a comprehensive and independent anti-corruption institutional framework which is backed by: (a) adequate resources; (b) effective laws; (c) tough criminal custodial and pecuniary sanctions for breaches of those laws; and (d) anti-corruption institutional leaders who are prepared, without fear and without favour, to dispassionately and to forthrightly enforce those laws."

Interestingly, in the Throne Speech delivered at the ceremonial opening of Parliament in May this year the governor general said the Government proposed "to rationalise Jamaica's institutional arrangements for fighting corruption by consolidating them under a single anti-corruption agency having strong powers. There will be explicit provisions to prevent abuse of authority."

Were those only words? I will be convinced when I see who is hired to replace Mr Christie and what specific actions are taken to give credibility to the utterances in the Throne Speech.

kcr@cwjamaica.com

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