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?


  1. I look forward to political commentaries on your blog. Please keep up the posting. This article raises an important question which sadly the local media has failed to highlight or draw under a microscope.

  2. The media in Grenada thrives on pure sensationalism, it leaves much to be desired. They are doing a very unfortunate job of dividing our country along color political lines(yellow VS Green) the media in Grenada sucks