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A crackdown on corruption

Chairman of the Integrity Commission, Melville Baird

Remember when ‘morality in public affairs’ was a phrase used very often by almost everyone in the country? More than 50 years after our independence, can we say that the phrase means the same today in Trinidad and Tobago?

Recently, Trinidad and Tobago ranked in the first 20 of the International Corruption Index worldwide. As we are aware in this country anything can be had, as long as you are willing to pay for it: driving permits, property, illicit vehicles, NHA (National Housing Authority) houses or apartments, jobs and the list can go on ad infinitum.

So, when Transparency International came with the idea of having a symposium on A Crackdown on Corruption: Facing the Reality, it was not too soon.

Chairman of the Integrity Commission (IC), Melville Baird, himself a former judge at the International Court of Justice, The Hague in the Netherlands, in his address to the conference said the theme had set the stage for it was “a call to arms; it is a line drawn in the sand; it is a declaration of war”.

He said, as is known, corruption is an abominable evil. He railed against the deleterious effect that corruption was having on our economy and consequently on our society and as such called for action to neutralise it, an action that was both desirable and appropriate.

Justice Baird, pulling no punches said, “The time has come for that action; the time has come for a crackdown on corruption…and I shall endeavour to take a tentative step in that realisation.” He presented for the audience’s consideration the theory of ‘Collective Action’.

What is ‘Collective Action’? According to the World Bank Institute, it is “a collaborative and sustained process of co-operation among stakeholders which increased the impact and credibility of individual action, brought vulnerable individual players into an alliance of like-minded organisations and levelled the playing field between competitors.”

It further stated that Collective Action should complement or temporarily substitute and strengthen weak local laws and anti-corruption practices.

Speaking as head of the IC the former judge said he believed that in his public speeches and admonitions, his many appeals to people’s sense of responsibility and civic-mindedness together with their commitment to country, he would have truly convinced them “to do the right thing” by filing their various declarations of income; assets and liabilities as the law demanded.

He said he was convinced “that I could have caused a patriotic chord to resonate and move them to file their declarations.” But apparently his requests fell on deaf ears.

Justice Baird said, “I stressed that this call for filing of declarations was not a product of some misguided idiosyncrasy of mine; I did not sit and pull it out of the ether. It is the law of the land. After months of trying, my efforts proved to be, in the main, unsuccessful.”

But he did not stop there. He said, “I was driven therefore, to adopt a more coercive approach— legal action.” Last September the IC made ex-parte applications to the High Court for orders against persons who had failed to file their declarations, directing them to do so under pain of criminal prosecution.

The orders were all made and all those persons who had been served with orders have complied, bar one. The Commission will be making a further application to the Court for action under section 11 (8) of the Integrity in Public Life Act in respect of that one.

Justice Baird promised, “…if legal action is the only way in which compliance with the Integrity in Public Life Act would be assured, then I will take legal action….”

Failure to comply with the order of the High Court would amount to an offence punishable with a fine of $150,000 and failure to file a declaration by May 31 would amount to an offence with a fine of $250,000 and imprisonment for 10 years.

Addressing the authorities directly he said, “As we consider the manner in which we could extract knowledge from stakeholders in the fight against street level corruption however, what we need with some measure of immediacy, is the facility for shareholders and members of the public to report their experiences with corruption, easily, quickly and anonymously in order for us to effectively gather vital information about the causes, courses and ultimately defeat of corruption.”

Justice Baird referred to an address he delivered to a similar conference last October in the Turks and Caicos Islands where he said, “Citizens must be prepared to trade their experiences of corruption with one another and to share suggestions and ideas as to how their mistakes could be avoided in the future.”

Giving a suggestion to help reduce corruption he asked the question, “Is it possible therefore, that placed as we are in this situation, we could have a website where members of the public could describe their experiences with corruption to each other. And further, could we encourage members of the public who have managed to avoid paying bribes, to share, through the website, the way in which they overcame that obstacle …. how they succeeded in neutralising corruption in their daily living?

Are we willing to endorse what the goodly judge suggests?