Posted: Monday, November 28, 2016. 11:20 a.m. CST.
By BBN Staff: So the Senate is meeting on Wednesday and among its many items on the agenda, it is expected to appoint members to the long-defunct Integrity Commission. Government sympathizers view it as proof GOB is making good on its commitments to teachers as a result of the 11-day strike in October but in truth, the Integrity Commission is not complete simply with appointing members.
The members themselves are subject to much scrutiny, raising eyebrows already. That’s a discussion on its own, but lets state the obvious; an Integrity Commission chaired by and stocked with government elites. Marilyn Williams, who has filled several high-level government offices over the past few years, is its chair. Nestor Vasquez has been tasked with the duty of serving as the Commission’s chartered accountant. The Prime Minister cried so many times that government’s problem was in finding a willing candidate to accept the designation as a politically-exposed-person.
The Prevention of Corruption Act (POCA) 2007, makes provisions for the Prime Minister to appoint all members of the Commission. It is flawed from its inception. Along with acceding on to the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC), POCA should also be revised and have amendments made which would limit the role of the executive branch in critical oversight bodies.
Considering the country’s worsening economic situation; government’s mad dash to restructure the Superbond; mounting arbitration costs; potential devaluation; and a dried up PetroCaribe treasure chest with only a few broken cement streets to show for it, this is definitely the time for these reforms to be introduced. If no-one in the House or the Senate raises this issue then we are totally hopeless. The teachers might need to strike again to get the conversation started because every other union and even the Chamber of Commerce showed their true worth where matters of national importance and development are concerned.
The POCA, however, is quite detailed in how the Integrity Commission is to be established and comprised. It is also very clear that the Commission cannot function on its own and a Secretariat to the Commission must be appointed. The Secretariat, according to POCA 2007, is to be comprised of an Executive Director, an administrative secretary, a senior accounts clerk, an in-house legal advisor, a special forensic investigator who is highly skilled and experienced in conducting investigations relating to financial crimes and any other personnel necessary to carry out the functions of the Commission.
If it was such a task to find an accountant in a country stocked to the ceiling with them, where in the hell will government find a special forensic investigator who is highly skilled and experienced in conducting investigations relating to financial crimes? Certainly, staffing the secretariat will present its own set of challenges but where there is a will there is a way. But there is very little political will. As a society though, Belize needs to get serious about oversight. Corrupt politicians need to go to jail. That time in Belize has not yet arrived, however, because the government of the day is allowed to put close allies on important bodies given the mandate of ensuring that politicians don’t do the unscrupulous things we all know they do.
So while the Integrity Commission may now be appointed, it seems as if it will be just as ineffective as it was when it was defunct. In that case, why even bother? A truly independent Integrity Commission is what this country needs. The Commission is responsible for ensuring elected officials declare financial assets annually. A properly functioning Integrity Commission with a fully staffed secretariat could help to hinder instances of corruption. How many times have we seen politicians come from nothing only to own properties and assets they could have never come across as a fisherman, an electrician, or a dude who fixes pool tables? The pool table fixing business seems to be booming in Belize then.
A proper Integrity Commission is far from the only body that needs to be re-evaluated though. The Public Accounts Committee also needs to be re-comprised. The office of the Auditor General needs more resources. Imagine how many more instances of blatant institutionalized corruption the Auditor General’s office would uncover if it had the resources to conduct and complete more audits.
Anyway, back to the Commission. Williams was appointed as chair of the Integrity Commission way back in 2014, however, it never came to be because two of the candidates nominated by the government to serve on the Commission backed out. Two more years went by without a Commission and nothing would have happened had it not been for the teachers’ demands.
The POCA, which establishes the Integrity Commission also outlines stiff penalties for corruption. According to section 19 of the Act, a person who fails to file a declaration to the Commission is liable on summary conviction to pay a fine of not less than $3,000 plus an additional $100 for every day that the disclosure remains outstanding. On a second or subsequent offense the fine cannot be less than $5,000 or imprisonment for one year or both.
Part four of the Act details the offenses for acts of corruption. According to the Act, a person commits an act of corruption if that public official obtains any illicit benefit for himself through the performance of his public functions. The Act also details other specific instances that are considered to be acts of corruption.
According to the Act, any person who, by himself or in conjunction with any other person, engages in an act of corruption and is a first time offender on summary conviction is liable for a fine not less than $10,000 and in the case of a second or subsequent offense, to a fine of not less than $20,000 or to imprisonment for a term not more than two years or both.
In the case where a public official is convicted on indictment, at the Supreme Court level, on a first offense the penalty would be a fine no less than $25,000 or to a prison sentence not more than two years or both. A second or subsequent offense would result in a fine not less than $50,000 or to a prison sentence of not more than three years or both.
Do we really expect this current Integrity Commission to actively enforce these laws against the Prime Minister and his government? These laws have existed for many years. These laws could have been used to jail members of the past government had this current administration chosen to do so. But the politicians who trade power back and forth are content weaseling their way through a broken system. Belize must demand better. No-one will do it for us.
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