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OPINION: Minister Hughes’ actions were appropriate and sufficient

by James McAllister

The recent public outcry about possible conflict of interest by APNU+AFC Government ministers was an indication of positive things happening in Guyana. The fact that a significant number of the people speaking out are vocal supporters of the government makes it even better. This is a clear indication that Guyanese are not in the mood to allow possible malfeasance to go unchallenged. It is a revelation that even APNU+AFC supporters are not prepared to give them a pass on corruption. This is good for Guyana.

Recently, when Transparency International downgraded Guyana by one point some people were disturbed. One angry friend blurted out, “the government has to get its act together. This is unacceptable.” This is the kind of reaction that has caused Denmark to be rated as the least corrupt country in the world. People there have no tolerance for corruption. Guyana is moving in the right direction, but this was not always the case.

In 2012, when Transparency International gave Guyana a score of 28 out of 100, and a rank of 133, there were some very angry people locally. The Private Sector Commission (PSC) summoned the representatives of Transparency International to protest the score. “The PSC expressed concern about the low ranking that Guyana received and its negative impact on business and investment and that, in its view, it was exaggerated. The PSC expressed further concern that the CPI [Corruption Perceptions Index] is based on perceptions and not reality, and the methodology used may not be appropriate.”

Transparency International explained its methodology and reiterated that Guyana’s score was appropriate. The following year Guyana’s CPI slipped to 27 and its rank to 138.

This is an example of what happens when stakeholders tolerate and excuse corruption. This is an example of what happens when the business sector, instead of challenging corruption at its source, goes begging for a fake score on the world’s CPI. Corruption becomes endemic and perpetrators are emboldened.

So yes, the outcry about perceived conflict of interest is a good thing. It does not mean that these ministers are guilty of corruption, but at least they, and their colleagues, will be kept on their toes.

In recent days, Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo was accused of flagrant nepotism because his niece is employed at his Berbice office. Similar accusations have plagued the political system across the world consistently. President John F. Kennedy was accused of nepotism when he appointed his brother, with minimal legal experience, Attorney General. In France, Richard Ferrand, a minister in the government is under pressure because of nepotism allegations. He is maintaining his innocence. Also in France, presidential hopeful François Fillon is facing calls to step aside. He is accused of paying his wife and children over a million dollars as parliamentary assistants, but they never showed up for work. In the United Kingdom, it is estimated that almost 25 percent of MPs, both government and opposition, employed family members in their constituency offices. Some of these spouses have other full time jobs but are still collecting salaries as parliamentary assistants.

Public pressure has forced the UK Parliament to ban the employment of family members as parliamentary assistants effective 2020. However, some MPs are pushing back.

In Guyana, we need to take a look at this issue, and determine what is acceptable, and what is not. This will prevent the issue from being made a political football. Is the employment of a niece in a constituency office, even though nowhere as egregious as what seems to pertaining in the UK, France, etc., unacceptable to us in Guyana. If it is, let us put it in the statutes. If it’s not, let’s be clear about it.

Minister Cathy Hughes is under attack because a company she owns was awarded a contract for approximately US$4,000. The minister established that she divested herself of any managerial role in the company since 2015, and that Russell Lancaster, a professional of high integrity, is tasked with the day-to-day management of the company. This is an acceptable arrangement. This is what pertains in developed countries.

For instance, former New York mayor, Micheal Bloomberg, faced such challenges when he was elected mayor. His financial information firm, Bloomberg L.P., had several clients who were doing business with the city. There were some rumbles and he agreed to relinquish some control of his company. Eventually it was accepted that some apparent conflict will remain, and that these would have to be monitored to ensure the apparent did not become real. When Mayor Bloomberg demitted office after 12 years there was not one scandal related to the aforementioned apparent conflicts.

Minister Cathy Hughes might not be a multi-billionaire of the order of Michael Bloomberg, but she is a business woman of many years standing. Her divestment of managerial control in her company is appropriate and sufficient. Those who suggest the company should suffer financially because a major stakeholder became a minister are just plain wrong. It is true that the company should enjoy no special privileges, but at the same time it should suffer no punishment.

Some commentators are now suggesting business people who assume political office should divest ownership of their companies. Puritan ideas such as this are unhelpful to our effort to set appropriate standards. Business people are some of the most innovative thinkers in any society. To establish conditions that would cause most of them to stay away from public service will be harmful to our country. Those suggesting it are just being disingenuous as they try to perch on a puritan platform for their own aggrandizement.

Minister Valarie Patterson has endured attacks from all sides over apparent conflict of interest. Her husband is a contractor with the ministry within her portfolio. The minister has established that the contracts were not awarded under her watch, and she has recused from all matters related to the contract. She also confirms that her husband does not intend to bid for further contracts at the ministry while she is functioning as minister. This is appropriate and sufficient. Those calling for the contract to be terminated are just plain wrong. The contractor is not in breach of any of the terms of the contract. To terminate his contract would be an abuse. Now that we are aware of this apparent conflict, we must ensure appropriate independent monitoring. This will not be the last such situation we will encounter as a nation, hence we must develop the mechanisms to address them.

In Trinidad and Tobago, the Minister of Works and Transport, Rohan Sinanan, came under pressure for apparent nepotism. This is because he is related to the owner of the company awarded the US$60 million Churchill-Roosevelt Highway Extension. He explained that he recused himself from the cabinet meeting considering the award, and that he informed Prime Minister Keith Rowley of his conflict. His explanation was acceptable to Prime Minister Rowley. This is the same Prime Minister Rowley who fired ministers of the government because of nepotism.

In 2006, while the PPP was in office, the World Economic Forum published a global nepotism index. Guyana, with a score of 4 out of 7, was ranked 75th on a list of 125 countries (The higher the score, the lower the impact of nepotism). This explains the level of intolerance for anything resembling nepotism. This is good. There needs to be a continuing national conversation. Our efforts to reduce perceptions of corruption and nepotism must be ongoing.

Mr. James Mc Allister is a former Member of Parliament and an executive member of the People’s National Congress Reform.