Wednesday, June 13, 2012

A Call for Ethical Responsibility in Public Office

Blogger's note: The following article -- a commentary on the debate surrounding the Grenada Prime Minister's acceptance of a US $50,000 donation into his account -- was submitted by Sandra Pierre - a Toronto-based commentator on public affairs.

As a contribution to the ongoing debate, we publish the contribution in full.

by Sandra Pierre

After careful consideration of the political situation in Grenada I am convinced that we need a movement towards ethical responsibility.

When I listen to the debates on important national issues in Grenada I become disheartened; I become disheartened because most of the time the ISSUES do not get the proper attention. To be sure, debates are often vibrant and entertaining; but the point of this or that particular debate usually gets forgotten. Instead, our debates focus on our political affiliations, or on who we like and dislike, or on the social status of the messenger, and so on. The end result is almost always a venomous attack on/character assassination of the individuals.

During the process of debate the ISSUE in question falls by the wayside—the ISSUE gets forgotten and the PERSONalities take centre stage.

This is a fundamentally regressive way of political engagement and works only to highlight our nation’s critical disability in debating issues of national concerns and, more importantly, in dealing with conflict. Moreover, this focus on PERSONalities makes it clear that the “us vs. them” mentality (which has been so skillfully infused through colonial slavery and reinforced by neocolonial practices) is alive and well in our politics—so much so that we as a nation fully believe political power ought never to be questioned, because this power is now seen as a divine authority.

I believe it is time to move beyond this trapping; the legacy of colonialism and slavery cannot be allowed to continue to block us from moving forward.

An appropriate example of our inability to move beyond this legacy is the current fiasco regarding Prime Minister Tillman Thomas’ ‘inappropriate’ acceptance of a political contribution; however to put this fiasco into proper perspective we need to briefly step back to the days of Former Prime Minister Keith Mitchell.

It is a well-worn story now that the Keith Mitchell NNP government, which held office for thirteen consecutive years, is alleged to have been involved in a host of conflict of interest improprieties, many of which have to do with financial contributions.

Four years after the NNP government was deposed there has been no Commission of Inquiry into these allegations, and hence there still is no substantive debate on, and thus no resolution to, such allegations. In fact, as a nation all that was done (and is still being done) to address these suspected unethical practices by the NNP is to vilify the Party’s leader, Keith Mitchell.

We now have a somewhat similar situation involving the leader of the incumbent government.

Some time ago Opposition Leader Mitchell made the accusation that “a senior government minister” accepted US$150,000 into their private bank account and declaring the contribution as “legal fees”. Mitchell called on Prime Minister Tillman Thomas to tell the public about this significant contribution, and also called on the Financial Intelligence Unit to investigate the matter.

A few weeks later, Prime Minister Thomas confesses, via a press release, to the nation that in January 2012 he had received into his private bank account the sum of US$50,000, not US$150,000 as alleged by Mitchell. The Office of the Prime Minister’s press release stated that the funds were declared as a “political contribution” and came from a donor whose “corporate office” is in the BVI.

Defenders of the PM reminded the public that no laws were broken; in fact, in Grenada we have no laws stipulating how political contributions are to be handled. They also assured the public that the contribution came through a legal channel: the Bank. Meanwhile, some Members of NDC Executive claim they only became aware of the contribution when the issue was made public. The identity of the giver of the contribution has not been disclosed to the PEOPLE.

Judging by the stir created it is clear that this is a serious national issue. I listened to the PEOPLE’s debates on the issue, as well as the Media’s mostly misguided analyses of it. Here is a quick summary of how this national issue has been taken up:

(1): Questions have been raised about possible “breach of confidentiality” on the part of the Bank where the contribution was deposited. Some citizens seem appalled that someone within a (private) Bank would “leak” such information to the Opposition; others seem confident that because it came through a Bank it therefore cannot be “dirty” money.

(2): Much attention has been paid to the source/giver of the contribution. The Opposition has alleged that it came from Saudi Arabia, while the Office of the Prime Minister has indicated the donor’s “corporate office” is in the BVI; the Media’s solution to this disagreement is that the Opposition produces the necessary evidence to verify the contribution’s source.

(3): Concerns have also been raised as to why the PM did not transfer the money to the NDC’s account. It was asked how is it that, four months after the donation, the party still had not been briefed about it? Others, including some media personnel, suggested that this money transaction is a “Party” matter and not a “Government” matter and therefore it should not be an issue for national debate.

(4): But most disturbing in this debate, I think, is the attention given to the validity of the Opposition’s claim that the PM received US$150,000 instead of US$50,000. The discussion here questions the “moral authority” of Keith Mitchell to even accuse Tillman Thomas, given Mitchell’s own history of lack of transparency and accountability on financial (and other) dealings. What startles me the most about this part of the debate is that discussants on various programs, as well as the Prime Minister’s officers, base their questioning of Mitchell’s moral authority by comparing him to Tillman Thomas’ character: Tillman is a “decent and honest” man, they say, who, unlike his predecessor, “can be trusted”.

Now these discussions are all important. But a sufficiently engaged citizenry will immediately recognize that in each of these four aspects of the debate the REAL ISSUE has been either missed or forgotten. Yes, it is vital for a PEOPLE to know that their Head of State is a person of decent moral character; after all, he is the Nation’s face to the rest of the world. Yes, it is vital that the PEOPLE know all of their government/party’s revenue sources; indeed, everybody knows that money sometimes buys favors that are not in their best interests. And yes, the PEOPLE want to feel confident that their Institutions—whether private or public—can be trusted to do the right/ethical thing.

But what is missed in the present debate is the fact that the important thing is the IMPROPRIETY of the transaction itself—NOT the character of Tillman Thomas, NOT the source of the contribution, NOT the ethical principles of the Bank.

Thus, what needs to be questioned is the ability or inability of the Office of the Prime Minister to make ethical decisions on behalf of the Nation.

This Office is the most influential in our democracy; it is this Office that holds the power of the PEOPLE; the Head of State is elected only to wield this power in the best interests of the PEOPLE. The “PERSONality” of the Head of Government will change from election to election, but the duties/responsibilities of the Office stay the same. And this is why the personal character of the Head of State, though important, is not the vital ISSUE in this case.

Our Constitution does not acknowledge the personal authority of Party leaders, but it does recognize the authority of the Prime Minister. In fact, the current PM himself often reminds us of this distinction. For this very reason we might expect the Prime Minister to appreciate that the Constitution expects ALL actions he conducts while holding this office to be up for the general public’s scrutiny, which therefore makes the current issue a national concern.

It should go without saying, then, that a SITTING Prime Minister CANNOT divorce himself/herself from this portfolio as they see fit. In a more politically aware environment this ISSUE would have already been behind us. For if the Head of Government knows that his/her Office holds the utmost ethical responsibility to the nation, then as far as I am concerned the current Prime Minister would have realized that accepting US$50,000 donation into his private account represents a serious conflict of interest; indeed, in many circles it would be considered a “kick-back”. But then this would mean that there had to have been policies and procedures in place to ensure that such unethical practices are not tolerated. The lack of such oversight mechanism has allowed the repeat of unethical practices that the PEOPLE has for some time now “suspected” to be going on. The mechanism of ethical responsibility has to become an “operating” part of our politics and society. If such an oversight mechanism had been in place then the debate over the moral character of the Head of State would be no debate at all, since there would be a set standard by which to measure his or her conduct. The lack of such a standard is why the ISSUE itself gets missed or forgotten.

As a nation we must ask ourselves: Does the Prime Minister owe us any moral/ethical responsibility? If yes, how then do we deal with instances where this responsibility is not honoured?

Friday, June 1, 2012

The facade has been lifted

There are a few questions I’d love answered, since for more than a year, the Grenada Prime Minister has not made himself available to be seriously questioned by any members of the media except for the Government Information Service and the extra-friendly MTV News.

(The one other time he was publicly cornered, Glen Noel pulled him away). 

I noticed Wednesday's statement from the Prime Minister's Office said the Grenadian leader received in his account US$50,000 – I take it that you were just rounding it up – which is fair. 

But will you confirm, to avoid approximation, that it was actually 56,000 – which makes it nearly 150,000 EC dollars (which is where the opposition might have gotten their currency numbers mixed up)?
While you accurately said it was a donation from a “corporate resident” in the British Virgin Islands – well Road Town, Tortola to be exact – can we clarify what “corporate resident” means? 

It’s an offshore company, right? 

Does that “corporate resident” have business interests as well in Saudi Arabia and Oman and Switzerland? 

Was that January 4, 2012 payment, the first, second or third? 

I know you said the donor asked for nothing and nothing was promised. (I’ll take your word for it). 

But just to clear my mind….

What is the field of interest of the donor? 

And how did the Prime Minister come to know the donor? 

Is that donor involved in any citizenship programmes anywhere? 

And is the fact that the government - through the Minister of Finance - floated one recently just a mere coincidence?

You said the declaration is a matter of public record. Really? So where can we find that again? 

Are you outright denying that what was declared to the bank was “legal fees?” 
And for an avoidance of doubt, can we have documentary proof of that, even while you try to “hide” the donor, since he does not want to be identified? 

Was this a donation for the Prime Minister personally, or for his party?

And if it’s for his party, has that money been officially transferred to the party’s account? 

If it was done; when and how? 

“The Prime Minister and Political Leader is of the firm belief that the donation is entirely legitimate and the attendant transaction was completely above board,” the statement said. 

Fair enough. His view is his view. 

I want to be of that same view too; but I need some clarification to come to that conclusion. 

“Furthermore, in the absence of any illegality, the question as to how those funds are handled and used by the party is strictly an internal matter to the party and will not be discussed with political opponents,” it further stated. 

So, ok. I get that. It’s your damn money too? 

And on the question of “in the absence of any illegality”, then can we forever drop the briefcase issue, since “no wrong doing was proven”? 

Or will we hold our politician to a higher standard --  a kind of transparent behavior – even where there is – in your case – “the absence of illegality” or in  KCM’s previous case – “no wrong doing was proven.”

PS: Maybe I have been around politics too long; but truthfully I don’t believe anything criminal happened; and in some ways a lot of it is no big deal to me really. 

What I suspect, it is a level of hypocrisy, after this government held itself to a “higher standard”. 

My further take: What this is, is the PM being just another politician – who will do what it takes – short of illegality, to survive politically.

Sandra Ferguson and company might have a problem with that. Frankly, I don’t.

All I’d’ say finally is that, with this episode, the fa├žade has been lifted.