Political face-off

Political face-off

Opposition threatens protest; Government insists it won't interfere with corruption investigations

BY: Kimone Francis
Senior staff reporter

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

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THE Government and Opposition are now engaged in a political face off over a threat by Dr Peter Phillips to stage protests over what he said was the Administration's failure to act on a number of issues of alleged corruption at State entities.

Dr Phillips made the declaration at a mid-afternoon press conference at People's National Party (PNP) headquarters in St Andrew where he accused the Government of “normalising” corruption.

However, a few hours later, the Government responded, saying that it views the opposition leader's suggestions that Government report on independent investigations currently taking place as “troubling”.

“Dr Phillips's call shows a lack of understanding of the current anti-corruption framework and the modern tenets of good governance, which requires politicians to not interfere with independent investigations,” Dr Horace Chang, who is acting as prime minister while chief executive Andrew Holness is overseas, said in a news release.

“I will remind the leader of the opposition that the bodies currently conducting their statutory duty to investigate are independent and should be insulated from political interference,” Dr Chang said.

At his press conference, Phillips had said that corruption has reached “crisis proportions” and referenced Transparency International's Global Corruption Barometer, which reported that 78 per cent of Jamaicans polled believe that corruption is a major problem in Government.

More than half of the respondents also felt that corruption had increased over the past year.

Phillips also referenced the National Integrity Action and University of the West Indies Mona Institute of Sustainable Development report which stated that corruption costs the country $141.8 billion annually.

This, he said, is seven per cent of Jamaica's gross domestic product.

“If the Government does not take a course of action that satisfies us, all of us will have to plan and take further action... because [we] will not participate in this normalisation of corrupt behaviour in Government,” he said.

“The first thing we will have to do is to consult with other stakeholders and to see what is happening, and to see what may be open to us through the courts, and to see what may be open through other action, including protest action,” he added.

According to Phillips, the inaction of the Government on a number of issues suggests that corrupt practices have become normal.

“I point to the fact of the return of the president of the Caribbean Maritime University [Fritz Pinnock] to his post without comment from the Government, and without any indication that the investigations are complete,” said Phillips.

In July, the embattled CMU president advised the CMU board that he had decided to take a six-week leave of absence with immediate effect, as investigations into allegations of misconduct linked to former education minister Ruel Reid and the university continued.

Pinnock later asked that his leave of absence be extended to September 16.

“He has returned. There has been no comment from the prime minister, who is the minister responsible, or the minister with day-to-day oversight, Minister Karl Samuda. There is no indication that the investigations are complete,” Phillips said.

“It is also a fact that staff, including one former MP (Member of Parliament), who were inappropriately appointed to the CMU continue in their jobs and continue to receive payments without any interruptions. No arrests have been made, neither in relation to the misuse and abuse of funds in the Ministry of Education or the Caribbean Maritime [University] despite the fact that much evidence has been provided publicly and in the Parliament about the misuse of such funds,” Phillips argued.

He also pointed to the Petrojam scandal in which he said no court action has taken place, and that no arrests have been made.

Additionally, he said there have been several other scandals over the past three years where investigations have been completed and no action taken, including the debushing scandal, nepotism and cronyism at the Universal Service Fund, misuse of funds at the Ministry of Local Government, the Students' Loan Bureau and questions surrounding Rooms on the Beach hotel in Ocho Rios.

“All of this failure to act has contributed to a trust deficit which the country faces. This trust deficit affects not just the Government, but it indeed affects all our vital national institutions, including our investigative agencies... It affects also our belief in the integrity of the prosecutorial arm of Government and indeed basic national institutions,” said Phillips.

He noted that it is the responsibility of the Opposition to not only expose corrupt practices reportedly taking place within Government, but to take action and secure remedies on behalf of the public.

“And so we are really calling upon everyone, including civil society, the churches, the private sector, and all well-thinking citizens, to ponder on these things and to take action now. We are calling on the board of the CMU to be relieved of its responsibilities immediately by the Government and we're calling upon the Ministry of Education to ensure that all the contracts that have been inappropriately and improperly executed at the CMU be rescinded.

“We are also saying that the president of the CMU needs to return to leave until the investigations are completed,” Phillips noted.

He also called for the status of the investigations surrounding the matter.

But in response, Chang, who is also minister of national security, said the Government will not interfere with any investigations and will not support the call by the Opposition leader “to undermine the credibility and authority of these independent bodies”.

“This Administration believes in the rule of law and is a champion in the anti-corruption fight. It is in that vein that we ensured that the Integrity Commission would not be influenced by the political directorate when we passed the new Integrity Act. Additionally, the MOCA (Major Organised Crime and Anti-Corruption Agency) Act was designed by this Administration to ensure its independence,” Chang said.

“Historically, it is labour governments that have done the most to fight corruption in this country, from the formation of the Office of the Contractor General in the 1980s. Labour governments have never turned a blind eye to corruption.

“It is therefore surprising that the leader of the opposition would say the Government should interfere when both the Government and Opposition passed laws to secure the independence of these entities,” Chang said, adding that Phillips seemed to be attacking for “political gain, the integrity of these entities headed by some of the most qualified and reputable persons”.

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