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Beyond the stagnation

The international non-governmental organization Transparency International has called out The Bahamas government for failing to take promised action to strengthen the country’s anti-corruption regime.

A key reason for the defeat of the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) in 2017 was that voters saw the party and the Christie administration as corrupt.

The Free National Movement (FNM) did a great job driving home that message. Its leader, Dr. Hubert Minnis, promised repeatedly to take action to make it difficult for any public officials to get away with corruption.

Last April, Prime Minister Minnis publicly claimed that The Bahamas loses $500 million annually to corruption. He had no evidence of that, but insisted the figure was legitimate.

Months earlier, in October 2017, Minister of State for Legal Affairs Elsworth Johnson introduced the Integrity Commission Bill (ICB) in Parliament to deal strongly with corruption in public life.

More than a year after it was tabled, the bill has not seen the light of day. It has not been debated and it is not a focus of any government discussion or action.

This inaction caused The Bahamas to be listed as the 29th least corrupt country. While this is a good score overall — as there were 180 countries on the list — The Bahamas was listed as a country that remained “stagnant” in its anti-corruption efforts.

“Most English-speaking Caribbean countries score exactly the same as last year, showing complete stagnation. Despite the current administrations in Jamaica, The Bahamas and Barbados, which rose to power based on bold anti-corruption platforms, any visible improvements are still very limited,” Transparency International said.

Not long after Minnis came to office, Transparency International, the leading global civil society organization fighting corruption around the world, sent him a letter applauding his government’s commitment to deliver on his campaign promises of transparency, accountability and good governance reform, as outlined in his pronouncements to introduce various anti-corruption legislation, along with an autonomous anti-corruption agency.

“We look forward to your government’s prompt and ongoing development of modern and robust anti-corruption policies,” the agency wrote, as it extended support for such efforts.

Transparency International also recommended five areas for priority consideration: The full enactment and implementation of a strong Freedom of Information Act; the enactment of whistleblower protection legislation; the enforcement of the Public Disclosure Act; political campaign finance reform and a fair and open public procurement system.

Minnis announced last March that the whistleblower provision of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) 2017 came into force on March 1, but the act has still not been brought fully into force.

In 2016, Transparency International noted that more than 100 countries have implemented FOI (freedom of information) laws but The Bahamas remained one of the few countries in the Caribbean that has not.

“The enactment of a FOI Act should be a high priority for The Bahamas and all governments that truly value democracy and the rights of its citizens,” said Alejandro Salas, regional director for Transparency International.

“Since 2012, there have been multiple delays preventing the enactment and implementation of a viable FOIA in The Bahamas. While there has been limited progress on public consultation, it is evident that the enactment of a FOIA is not a high priority for the country’s legislative agenda.”

Last week, Attorney General Carl Bethel told us that the government was still searching for an information commissioner. Asked when the act will be fully enacted, Bethel said, “Every other country has taken at least five years to fully implement [it].”

While it claims to be serious about implementing FOIA, the Minnis administration has not gotten around to campaign finance legislation.

It has also threatened action against officials who violate the public disclosure law, but nothing has happened in this regard either.

According to Public Disclosure Commission Chairman Myles Laroda, there were three officials who had not disclosed at the time of the legally mandated deadline. He said the prime minister had asked him to turn those names over to the attorney general.

Last week, Laroda made an incredible revelation, that the three disclosed after the deadline passed.

The Integrity Commission Act would repeal the Public Disclosure Act.

The proposed groundbreaking legislation comprehensively details acts of corruption, including the behavior of public officials with respect to the award of contracts and soliciting or accepting any personal benefit or providing an advantage for another person by doing an act or omitting to do an act in the performance of his or her functions as a public official.

Where a person who is or was in public life is found to be in possession of property or a pecuniary resource disproportionate to his known sources of income, and he fails to produce satisfactory evidence to prove that the possession of the property or pecuniary resource was acquired by lawful means, he would be guilty of an offense and would be liable on summary conviction to a fine and a term of imprisonment not less than six months and not more than three years.

In imposing the fine, the court shall have regard to the value of the property or resource in possession of that person, and such fine may be equivalent to one and one half times the value of the property or pecuniary resource found to be in the person’s possession.

The law would provide for anyone with knowledge of alleged corruption to report it to the Integrity Commission.

Where a person has reasonable grounds to believe that a public official has committed an act of corruption, he may, orally or in writing and with or without disclosing his identity, make a complaint to the commission.

In addition to establishing the Integrity Commission, the bill is intended to promote and enhance ethical conduct for MPs, senators and other public officials.

But it is not now a priority item for the Minnis administration, which says it is focused on protecting the delicate financial services industry.

The anti-corruption legislation would likely become more controversial the later it is brought in the term. The government has other important matters to get to as well, most importantly strengthening the economy and reforming healthcare and education.

It must balance all of these things while demonstrating that it is indeed serious about establishing a strong anti-corruption regime.

Candia Dames is the executive editor of the Nassau Guardian.
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