National Review

Dead letter 

Public remains in dark over legally mandated public disclosures

After assuming office in 2017, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis sent a message that he was serious about exposing those parliamentarians — former and current — who failed to file their financial disclosures during the last term as required by law.

Minnis at the time gave them three weeks in which to file, warning that he would turn the file with their names over to the attorney general and instruct him to do what the law prescribes.

We never got a full reporting on who, if anyone, was still outstanding and no action was ever taken.

Under the Public Disclosure Act, 1976, senators, members of Parliament and senior public officers are required to file with the Public Disclosure Commission a declaration of their assets, income and liabilities by March 1.

That date passed on Monday. We have no knowledge at this point of who filed and who failed to, although the government sent out a notice that the prime minister had met the deadline.

While he was open to talking to the media during his time as commission chairman, attorney Myles Laroda, who is set to become the Progressive Liberal Party’s candidate for Pinewood, resigned last week.

The Cabinet Office announced on Monday that George Carey has replaced him.

The commission under Laroda’s leadership has never gazetted any disclosures as the commission is mandated to do under the law.

Laroda, who served as chairman since 2015, said on Monday the commission’s hands were tied by the failure of the Cabinet Office to provide resources for the gazetting.

Incredibly, the most recent gazetted report is from December 2011, and it contains information on disclosures only up to 2008.

“It is what it is,” Laroda said. 

“It is 2021 and it’s done for up to 2008. That means 13 years is outstanding.”

That means that over 10 years, the public has not had access to published information on whether parliamentarians and others required to disclose were obeying the law in relation to public disclosures.

“I have been there from 2015 until now, and my knowledge was that for all the period that we were there we functioned basically as a department of the Cabinet Office,” Laroda told National Review.

“We have never, ever, not while I was there published anything. We didn’t have a budget. Our budget for whatever we got came out of whatever was allocated to us…We don’t have an account and we don’t write checks. Everything that is done [is done through the] Cabinet Office.”

Laroda said that everyone required to file for 2018 and 2019 did so with the exception of one senator.

He said the commission needs to be independent to do its work.

Asked about his tenure as chairman, Laroda said, “Things could always have been better. I would say this though, that from 2015 to 2020, the compliance rate went up tremendously, that they were much more compliant…”

Disregard

In 2015, an Organization of American States (OAS) report noted that the commission lacks technological tools to carry out its work.

At that time, the commission was using the following machines in the execution of its functions: one adding machine, two word processors and a fax machine.

The commission does not have an electronic system for receiving declarations and accordingly, there is no electronic database in use. Data is stored in the filing system, that report noted.

When he spoke at an anti-corruption conference in the Cayman Islands in March 2014, then Prime Minister Perry Christie acknowledged a flagrant disregard by officials for this law.

Outlining anti-corruption legislation in The Bahamas, Christie pointed to “legislation providing for the disclosure of the financial affairs of members of Parliament and senior public officials (which admittedly, however, has not proven to be a model of scrupulous observance)”.

Nevertheless, he said, the Public Disclosure Act is a part of a package of legislative provisions and mechanisms “used and pressed into service in some way or another as part of the national fight against corruption in The Bahamas”.

Some former MPs have admitted in the media that they have violated the law by failing to disclose.

In February 2011, Hubert Ingraham, at the time prime minister, said, “The last one I did was the day before the election in 2007.”

That means that he had not disclosed up to that point in four years.

Ingraham acknowledged at the time, “the Public Disclosures Act is not being adhered to by members of Parliament”.

At that time, the last disclosures published were done on November 3, 2004 and had information up to 2000.

Ingraham said he was in no position to tell other public officials to disclose their financial information in light of his own violation.

The act provides for the Public Disclosure Commission to examine every declaration furnished to it by MPs, senators and senior public officials and public appointees.

But the Public Disclosure Commission is a toothless tiger.

In its 2013 report, the Constitutional Commission noted, “There can be no denying that there is a need for a body which would have the ability to ensure that ministers, parliamentarians and other senior officials are accountable and exercise probity in their affairs.

“In recent times, however, under successive governments, the Public Disclosure Commission has become essentially dead letter.”

The 1976 act has not been amended or updated since being enacted.

Recommendations

The OAS’ MESICIC (The Mechanism for Follow-up on the Implementation of the Inter-American Convention Against Corruption) report, dated March 20, 2015, said, “Given that the commission does the important work of receiving and reviewing declarations of parliamentarians, including that of the prime minister, it is essential that it has independence to carry out its functions in reviewing the declarations submitted by members of the Cabinet and the prime minister”.

The report observed the relatively low level of compliance by those subject to the act to file their declarations on or before the legislatively mandated timeframe.

In this respect, the committee conducting the review noted that one of the difficulties mentioned during its onsite visit was the delay in obtaining declarations from members of Parliament, senators, senior public officers and public appointees.

The report recommended that The Bahamas consider publicizing the names of the officials who have not submitted their declarations as required under the Public Disclosure Act, in addition to the report sent to the prime minister and leader of the opposition on disclosures made.

“As there is a difficulty in obtaining these declarations, publicizing names may prove useful in encouraging compliance of those that are in default,” the report said.

It recommended empowering the commission to report directly to the attorney general or the police when it comes across alleged acts of corruption committed by those subject to the act.

The report made a long list of recommendations, including making the commission independent.

It also recommended publicizing the summarized declarations online so as to assure greater access to them by the public.

Again, the former administration left office without giving this matter any priority.

The Minnis administration has followed suit.

In the Speech from the Throne, the Minnis administration pledged to amend the Public Disclosure Act “to broaden the scope of application to include campaign finance reform and to make provisions for direct referral to an independent prosecutor”.

Integrity Commission

In October 2017, it introduced the Integrity Commission Bill, which would repeal the antiquated Public Disclosure Act. 

The bill comprehensively detailed 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.

The bill mandates that 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 would promote and enhance ethical conduct for MPs, senators and other public officials.

But more than three years after the Minnis administration tabled that bill, it has received no attention.

With an election nearing, it is unlikely that the legislation will see the light of day anytime soon. 

The Minnis administration’s pledge to strengthen the anti-corruption regime has fallen flat.

Show More

Candia Dames

Candia Dames is the executive editor of The Nassau Guardian.

Related Articles

Back to top button

Adblock Detected

Please support our local news by turning off your adblocker