Integrity in public office
July 24, 2004
Recent scandals surrounding persons who are senior government officials emphasise that Guyana needs to enact and enforce strict laws to ensure integrity in public office.
In the past few months alone, the public has endured the ‘duty-free cars’ scandal, the ‘death squad’ scandal and the ‘wildlife trade’ scandal. Regardless of whether the public officers who are currently embroiled in scandals are guilty or not, there is no question that the integrity of public officers is a matter of grave public concern.
The very least the public expects of public officers is that they adhere to the highest standards of accountability and social responsibility. In these hard times, abuse of public office for political gain or personal enrichment is especially intolerable.
The current spate of allegations of corruption, malfeasance and conflict of interest by persons in public office has created an unusually high level of suspicion regarding the integrity of public officers. It seems fitting that Parliament should sharpen the teeth of laws designed to curb abuse of public positions for personal gain.
The PPP/C government has always expressed commitment to a strong anti-corruption platform. The government is both legally and morally obliged to facilitate probity and accountability in public office. By virtue of its leadership role and majority voice in Parliament, the government has both the authority and means to preserve good faith and enforce fair dealing in the actions of public officers.
Citizens who obtain public office play vital economic, social and political roles, which have major impact on society. It is not only appropriate but essential that those who seek public office by way of which they lead others and influence their lives, should demonstrate exemplary leadership qualities, foremost among which is unquestionable personal integrity.
It seems only fair that those who seek and obtain the privilege of holding public office must accept intense public scrutiny of their actions in the interest of preserving the integrity of their office. As such, those who aspire to serve as public officers should clearly understand and accept that they will have to sacrifice some of their privacy rights in the public’s interest, specifically those dealing with their personal finances.
The time is ripe for the government to establish the legal framework to facilitate full disclosure of the financial affairs of public officers, if such disclosure is necessary in the public’s interest. Such officers should be required to declare their incomes, assets, liabilities, assets of close relatives acquired through or traceable to the officers’ incomes and gifts in excess of a certain reasonable minimum value.
A competent body, which has the public’s confidence, could be tasked with acquiring and recording such information. The records should be confidential, except when exposure is necessary for the purpose of informing court proceedings or official legal probes into allegations of impropriety on the part of public officers.
The best attribute of this approach is that it will prevent as well as cure. The very existence of sharp-toothed regulations enabling exposure, in appropriate circumstances, of public officers’ financial interests would undoubtedly deter abuses of public office. Not only would such regulations tend to keep public officers honest, they would also make corrupt characters think twice about seeking public office.
When we consider the social, political and economic environment in Guyana today, it is clear that there is a pressing need to preserve integrity in public office.
Tough regulations to enforce zero tolerance for skullduggery in public offices should be put in place now. These may be scrutinized, modified and adapted as the exigencies of public life change.