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Politicians and their finances

Newly appointed members of Parliament are officially sworn in as MPs at the first sitting of the House of Assembly during the Opening of the New Parliament in May 2017. FILE

When a general election or bi-election approaches, Bahamians show keen interest in the financial declarations of candidates, but what some may not realize is that these declarations are to be produced by MPs and senators every year, and are part of what is supposed to be a robust anti-corruption framework in our country.

In the fight against corruption, the Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) and its enabling Public Disclosure Act (PDA) of 1976 are essential elements, but successive governments to the present day have failed to strengthen these elements so that MPs, senators and senior public officials can be held to account for their income, assets and liabilities amassed during their tenure.

The role of the three-member PDC is to examine financial declarations submitted to it, and to request any information or explanation relevant to the declaration that would assist in the examination thereof.

Section 5(1) of the PDA says a declaration is to include the assets, income and liabilities of the declarant, his or her spouse and the declarant’s children, with limitations on reporting for a spouse or child outlined in the act.

Due to the weak legislated powers and inadequate level of resources provided to the PDC, a culture of non-compliance on the part of many politicians and senior public officials has persisted over the years — a culture that runs counter to efforts to tackle corruption in public life.

Though failure to produce one’s declaration and making a false declaration are among offenses in the PDA which upon conviction can carry a maximum penalty of a $10,000 fine and/or two years in prison as well as land forfeiture, politicians have not been subjected to such proceedings which cannot be instituted without the written approval of the attorney general.

The Minnis administration promised to enact new legislation to create an Integrity Commission that would replace the PDC, but the Integrity Commission Bill has seen no movement since its tabling in 2017, leaving the PDA in its arguably impotent state save for a budget increase in the 2018/2019 fiscal year that has been used in part for new furnishings, electronic equipment and an anti-corruption conference to the Cayman Islands, according to PDC Chairman Myles Laroda in an interview with Perspective.

Each year, MPs and senators are required to submit to the PDC a declaration for the calendar year ending December 31, which is due by March 1 of the following year.

Perspective contacted MPs and senators last Friday to ask whether they had submitted their declaration ahead of yesterday’s March 1 deadline, which Laroda told us would be extended to today given that the deadline fell on a Sunday.

The responses were as follows:

YES: Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis; Marvin Dames; Jeff Lloyd; Duane Sands; Carlton Bowleg; Elsworth Johnson; Darren Henfield; Chester Cooper; Shanendon Cartwright; Frederick McAlpine; Frankie Campbell; Halson Moultrie; Glenys Hanna-Martin; Travis Robinson; Reece Chipman and senators Carl Bethel; Dion Foulkes; Kwasi Thompson; Dwight Sawyer; Jasmin Turner-Dareus; Jennifer Isaacs-Dotson; Michael Darville; Jobeth Coleby-Davis and Clay Sweeting.

WILL SUBMIT TODAY (MONDAY): Opposition Leader Philip Brave Davis; Rickey Mackey; Picewell Forbes; Pakesia Parker-Edgecombe; Michael Pintard and senators Fred Mitchell and Jaunianne Dorsett.

NO RESPONSE: Renward Wells; Desmond Bannister; Dionisio D’Aguilar; Lanisha Rolle; Brensil Rolle; Romauld Ferreira; Mark Humes; Adrian Gibson; Shonel Ferguson; Michael Foulkes; Miriam Emmanuel; Reuben Rahming and senators Ranard Henfield and Jamal Moss.

When asked if they had disclosed, MP Brent Symonette said he “would get back to” us; Peter Turnquest said his declaration will “probably” be on Tuesday; Iram Lewis and Donald Saunders said they completed their forms which they believed were submitted; Vaughn Miller said he was completing his as we spoke and Senator Lisa Bostwick said she “requested and received” an extension and is “in the process of preparing” her declaration.

Central and South Abaco MP James Albury had not yet disclosed and revealed that he applied to the PDC for an extension, pointing out that, “When my home was severely damaged in the hurricane, a lot of my personal financial records were destroyed and lost, so it has taken me quite a bit of time to re-acclimate and re-correct and make sure I have all the right information and documentation.”

We were unable to reach senator Sharon Annafaye Ferguson-Knowles up to press time.

Laroda confirmed that some members had asked the commission for additional time to file their declarations.

He advised on Friday, “There have been several members this week that requested extensions [and] that does not mean that they would be on time, but we have exercised our right as the Commission to give extensions to certain members based on their circumstances.”

The maximum timeframe for such an extension in the PDA is one month.

“It’s my personal business”

Two government politicians were adamant that the timely filing of their public disclosures is not the business of the press, chief among them Senate President Dr. Mildred Hall-Watson.

When questioned on whether she had submitted her disclosure, Watson asked, “Why is that a concern of The Guardian? That’s a personal issue.”

When we reminded the senate president that the timely filing of her declaration is the law and that public disclosures are not personal issues, but are rather the public’s business, she responded, “I know it’s the law and I know it needs to be done, but whether or not I do it depends on me, not on The Guardian, eh?”

In response, we advised Watson that the request made to her had been made to all MPs and senators and we reminded her again that public disclosures and adherence to the PDA are by their very nature a public matter and the public’s business. She answered, “Well I guess you can do what you need to do regarding the public, but I don’t think it’s the responsibility of me to give you my personal information.”

South Eleuthera MP Hank Johnson, meanwhile, became audibly irate at the mere question put to him on whether he had filed his disclosure, promptly firing the question to us of, “You’re calling me to ask me that? Why?”

When we responded that we are asking because the timely filing of his declaration is the law and is required of him, Johnson responded, “So why are you calling me and asking me that? I’m not going to disclose that to you, whether I did or did not.”

Johnson then disconnected the call.

Bahamas has failed to strengthen the PDC

MESICIC is the anti-corruption mechanism of the Organization of American States (OAS) which brings together member states to review their legal frameworks and institutions in light of the Inter-American Convention against corruption.

In its 2015 final report on The Bahamas, the MESICIC Committee determined that The Bahamas “has not considered and adopted measures intended to maintain and strengthen the Public Disclosure Commission”, and made 21 recommendations for the country’s review.

It also revealed that between 2008 and 2012, a total of 117 MPs, 71 senators and 455 senior public officers and appointees were reported to the prime minister, the leader of the opposition and the attorney general for failure to file their declarations as prescribed by law.

Whenever an MP, senator or senior public official fails to file his or her declaration on time, the PDC is to report the same to the prime minister and leader of the opposition in the case of parliamentarians (House and Senate), and to the prime minister and attorney general in the case of senior public officials.

A seminal 2015 MESICIC recommendation was that The Bahamas “consider establishing provisions that set out that the Public Disclosure Commission is independent in exercising its functions under the Public Disclosure Act” and “ensure that the Public Disclosure Commission has budgetary independence”.

During its on-site visit, the committee said, “It was noted that the commission is a unit of Cabinet Office, rather than an independent agency, headed administratively by the secretary to the Cabinet which is under the ministerial portfolio of the prime minister of The Bahamas.

“As such,” it continued, “both the budgetary and human resource functions are performed by the officers at the Cabinet Office, not by the commission.”

The significance of this scenario plays out in the publishing of annual declarations in the Gazette, which the PDA says is to be done by the PDC and is critical for accountability purposes because the gazetting of the declarations enables the public to see and scrutinize the declarations, and to file complaints about the declarations to the commission.

When we questioned Laroda on why the PDC does not publish the declarations, he maintained, “You need to take this up with whoever heads the Cabinet Office.

“After we would have inspected the declarations, we then send them to the Cabinet Office, so where they die is there.”

Since the financial declarations of parliamentarians and senior public officials are not being published, the “public” in public disclosure is left in the dark, which essentially nullifies the over-arching effect of the PDA and the commission.

And with too few staffers on hand to work through the examination of annual declarations, Laroda disclosed that the commission is years behind in its mandate.

“Yes, the commission could use additional staff,” he answered when questioned on whether the PDC needs more human resources to carry out its work expeditiously.

“The work that is done is done properly and we have a CPA (certified public accountant) who sits on the commission,” he noted, “but you don’t get out as much because you don’t have as much people going through [the declarations] — there are several years of disclosure statements that we have not gotten through as yet.”

With the Minnis administration’s tough talk on corruption prior to its victory at the polls, and considering its pledge of stronger accountability and transparency, it is telling that it has not moved to strengthen the PDC and alternatively, has not moved to pass and enact its Integrity Commission Bill — thereby maintaining the same status quo that enables corruption in public life.

MESICIC also recommended that The Bahamas establish and update a website for the PDC; implement an electronic system for filing declarations; give the PDC the power to inspect and make copies of all relevant government documents; require the PDC to publish an annual report of its activities; provide the PDC with the ability to impose administrative fines for late filings and publish the names of those who have not submitted their declarations as the act prescribes.

Additional recommendations by the OAS body included the establishment of mechanisms that would allow the PDC to report alleged acts of corruption directly to the AG (attorney general) or the commissioner of police.

It also recommended the implementation of “a register of declared interests in order to help identify potential conflicts of interest between a declarant’s private interests and his or her public duty”.

Regarding the findings of the 2015 MESICIC report, Laroda advised, “The commission has endorsed and made those recommendations to the prime minister (Minnis).”

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