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A 'Serious Regression' In Jamaica's Fight Against Corruption
A potent tool to unearth corruption in Jamaica has been blunted.
18º North has learned that the Integrity Commission has ceased publication of the Quarterly Contracts Awards Searchable Database (QCA), which has listed the particulars of all contracts awarded by public bodies since 2006.
The QCA database was introduced under the tenure of Greg Christie when he was Contractor General to help eliminate corruption, fraud, waste and inefficiency from government contracting and licensing in Jamaica. All public bodies are required to report to the Commission on a quarterly basis all contracts valued at more than J$500,000 (*US$3,208).
Now that the Contractor General role has been subsumed under the new Integrity Commission, Mr. Christie, who is now executive director of the Commission, wrote to 18º North that “statutory restrictions that are imposed by Section 56 of the Integrity Commission Act” means that the QCA database can no longer be published.
“Once the Statutory Bars under Section 56 are removed by Parliament, the Commission will recommence its publication of the GOJ Contract Award Database,” Mr. Christie stated.
He didn’t answer when asked, however, whether the final QCA report on the Commission’s website encompassing 15 years of data up to the third quarter of 2020 will stay up or eventually be removed.
The Issue With Section 56 Explained
The Integrity Commission Act was signed by the Governor General in October 2017 and came into operation the following year.
Though it was designed to consolidate anti-corruption laws, including the prevention of impropriety in the awarding of government contracts, Section 56(1) states that every person with an official duty under the Act “shall regard and deal with as secret and confidential, all information, statutory declarations, government contracts, prescribed licenses, and all other matters relating to any matter before the Commission...”
In its 2020-2021 annual report, the Commission outlined that it was seeking a legal opinion from its Director of Corruption Prosecution regarding whether continued publication of the QCA database by the Commission breached this section of the Act. Mr. Christie didn’t answer a question as to whether that legal opinion was received, and if it was the reason for the discontinuation of the publication.
Whatever the reason, however, the move has alarmed civil society advocates who’ve long used the database to help analyze whether contracts were awarded based on merit and without impropriety and argue that no longer providing this kind of information is a disservice to the public.
“Who does it serve to withhold authorization for the Commission to continue to provide contract award info that details the contract awarded, the amount, the recipient and the procurement type,” assailed Jeanette Calder of the non-partisan not-for-profit group Jamaica Accountability Meter Portal. “We don't need to ask who it does not serve, as that would be our journalists, the public, our Auditor General, MOCA, the Public Accounts Committee, citizen watchdog agencies and any entity that contributes to the fight against corruption.”
Executive Director of anti-corruption body National Integrity Action, Prof. Trevor Munroe, charges that “this is a serious regression from previous practice and a clear assault on the principle of transparency.”
“NIA urges the Integrity Commission Oversight Committee recommend the removal of the offending clause in the Act,” he said.
The Integrity Commission Oversight Committee (ICOC), comprising members of the Lower House, has been discussing requests for changes to the Act based on the Commission’s submissions to the parliament. During Tuesday’s parliamentary session, committee chairman Edmund Bartlett moved to create a Joint Select Committee, to also include members of the Upper House, that will allow for the public to make submissions on changes to the Act before sending its recommendations to the wider parliament for consideration.
But Section 56 is not listed among the changes to be discussed.
Mr. Bartlett, who will serve on the Joint Select Committee, told 18º North that it was the first time he was hearing about a problem with that section, and as such, “it’s not on our radar for the next meeting.”
When asked why such an important matter was left out, Mr. Christie responded that, “The subject matter will be placed before the Committee in due course.”
“All the matters that the Commission has for the Committee's consideration are deemed to be ‘important’ matters and, obviously, they cannot all be addressed at the same time,” he wrote. He then released a press release saying that the Commission did in fact write to the parliament about this section in September 2020, which would have preceded Mr. Bartlett’s time as chairman of the ICOC.
But even without a submission from the Commission, Opposition member of the ICOC committee, Julian Robinson, who was also named to the Joint Select Committee, told 18º North that any committee member can make a recommendation for an item to be placed on the agenda.
Mr. Robinson said he, himself, only recently became aware of the move to no longer publish the QCA database, and that “it’s something we have to look at in terms of revising it” because “I don’t think that was the intention of the law.”
The Gag Clause
The requested change by the Commission that has received the most attention is for a repeal of Section 53(3) of the Act.
That section has been interpreted by the Commission as preventing it from commenting on an investigation, or even confirming or denying the existence of one, until it’s tabled in parliament.
It is believed this section was imposed by lawmakers after Mr. Christie in his former role as Contractor General was criticized for injuring reputations. Others praised him, however, for being forthright.
In its submission to the parliament, the Christie-led Commission argued that not only is this gag “inimical to the public interest and the public good,” but that an announcement of an investigation by the Commission “cannot logically undermine the presumption of innocence, or tarnish someone’s reputation, when the announcement follows an allegation that has already been introduced into the public domain by a 3rd party.”
These third-party allegations, it states, usually emanate from “proceedings of the Committees of Parliament, published reports of agencies of the state, media reports, or public statements or requests made by Parliamentarians and politicians, or by others.”
Furthermore, the submission states, “The IC is not aware of any similar statutory ‘gag’ being imposed upon any other law enforcement agency in Jamaica.”
“This suggests that blanket statutory gags are unusual and do raise curious questions.”
Mr. Bartlett says that the Joint Select Committee will enable a “careful analysis and review, and that will inform the requests that the commission is making regarding the building out of provisions that manage the Act.”
However, Ms. Calder insists that any review must contain an amendment to Section 56 in order for Jamaica to continue its fight against corruption.
“IF the Govt is truly serious about combatting what the PM called a ‘tier level one threat’ to Jamaica it has to be a priority,” Ms. Calder said. “PLUS it is a waste of time to review 53.3 and not simply address 56.1. They are BOTH confidential clauses that do harm.”
*Exchange rate is based on the Bank of Jamaica’s current average selling rate of one U.S. dollar for J$155.84.