Tackling corruption Editorial
Stabroek News
March 14, 2002

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Allegations of widespread corruption are, of course, by no means unique to Guyana. In a recent seminar in Jamaica organised by the Carter Center on the theme "Fostering transparency and preventing corruption in Jamaica" Bertrand de Speville, formerly a Commissioner of the Independent Commission Against Corruption of Hong Kong had this to say:

"Every day the headlines tell us "Corruption here", "Corruption there". It is not surprising we come to believe corruption is everywhere. Allegations of corruption fly around but never seem to be resolved. Nobody is charged, let alone convicted. We never know if the matter has been properly investigated. These allegations just accumulate, polluting the atmosphere. Before long we believe all our public figures, all our politicians and public officials, indeed all those around us are corrupt. We are obviously in need of fresh air. This state of mind is not peculiar to Jamaica - it occurs in every country where people believe that allegations of corruption are not properly investigated.

One of the functions of the Corruption Prevention Commission is to investigate thoroughly corruption allegations that are made to it. But the public has to be satisfied. People have to be reassured that the Commission has done a proper job of investigation. Experience in places like Hong Kong and Singapore shows us that most allegations or suspicions of corruption do not result in a prosecution in court. Usually, the reason is that the necessary evidence is lacking or that the allegation was mistaken. The investigation can go no further and must, therefore, be closed, but not before we are satisfied it really has been properly investigated.

How can the Commission reassure the public about that? It would be disastrous to make available for public scrutiny all those investigations that have to be closed. It would wreck the confidentiality of the Commission. Some of the Commission's work must be confidential; the public expects it.

There is an alternative. In addition to relying on citizens to provide complaints and evidence relating to alleged corruption, they can form a committee. This has been used successfully in Hong Kong over many years. A committee of trustworthy citizens is given the role of looking at those cases that investigators propose should be closed and providing advice. These citizens meet once a month for half a day and consider the cases that are to be closed. They can question the investigating officers. If they agree with the proposed closure, they advise accordingly. If they do not, they can suggest that further investigation should be done or that the legal advice should be considered. Their work is, of course, confidential.

In that way the people are reassured that ordinary citizens, acting in the public interest and on behalf of the public, have satisfied themselves that investigations have been done thoroughly. The air begins to clear".

We are a long way from tackling corruption at that level but a start has been made with the passing of the Integrity Commission Act in l99l and an amended Act in l997 and the legislation is supported by both the main parties. The l997 Act set up an Integrity Commission and requires a very substantial number of persons in public life holding offices specified in Schedule I (including the President, Ministers, Parliamentarians, Judges, members of Regional Democratic Councils, senior civil servants, heads of government departments) to file an annual declaration of the assets and liabilities and the income of the declarant and his or her spouse and children. In principle, if declarations are honestly made a comparison of the returns from year to year would disclose cases of unjust enrichment. In practice, declarants are unlikely to inculpate themselves and de Speville says experience has shown that asset declarations alone have little effect in deterring, let alone exposing, the dishonest and the corrupt. Excessive wealth is more likely to be revealed by someone's lifestyle than by his declaration. In Guyana, too, people who own property of a certain value (in practice including all householders) have already been required for several decades to file a return of assets and liabilities for property tax purposes, though many have never done so.

The Act also sets up a Code of Conduct with which the designated persons must comply and which bans the request or acceptance of inducements for performing public functions, discrimination, acceptance of gifts or benefits, using official influence to support contracts in which the person has an interest and so on. Anyone can make a complaint to the Commission alleging a breach of this Code and they are required to investigate. On the conclusion of the inquiry they can refer the matter to the Director of Public Prosecutions if they see fit. Over the years, the Commission has received four complaints which they have investigated, in one case with the help of the Guyana Revenue Authority and in another with the help of the Auditor General's office. In neither case has a prosecution resulted. The Commission has a staff of four, a secretary-accountant, a senior clerical officer who checks returns, an office clerk and a secretary-typist. The Commissioners meet every Friday.

So there is a structure in place. And they have been collecting annual returns for years, though some persons have not complied (this is, of course, an offence under the Act). But in practice without political will and the necessary upgrading of staff there will not be a sustained assault on such corruption as may be taking place in areas like the award of government contracts. Moreover, a campaign of public education would be needed to make citizens aware of their right to file complaints and of the fact that something can be done to deal with requests for bribes for birth certificates or driving licences or any other corrupt practice. With public involvement, spectacular results can be achieved.

As it is, endless allegations of corruption are made but with no credible detail and many are clearly inaccurate and malicious. If the politicians are serious about it the next step would be to strengthen the legislation they have already created unanimously by beefing up the investigative and enforcement arms (the latter, of course, are not part of the Commission but of the public administration in particular the police who would have to file any prosecutions), and engaging in a programme of public education.