Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Playing Police and Thief

 The burning question about LifeSport is not why the Prime Minister hasn’t fired her Minister of Sport.

We already know the answer to this: The big mouth that got Anil Roberts into the Cabinet will keep him in Cabinet until public opinion drowns it out and again pushes the PM into survival mode.

No, the real question is what is the PM doing in the middle of what has been, from day one, a police matter? And where has the police been in a matter involving the theft of millions of dollars in State funds?

Of course, the Prime Minister is entitled to launch any number of investigations into the actions of Government ministries and agencies. But no investigation by her or any member of the political directorate ought to pre-empt the Police Service’s role and responsibility in the independent investigation of crime.

Increasingly, as in the case of Section 34, the “Prisongate” fiasco, and now with LifeSport, we’re seeing a tendency by the Prime Minister to insert herself into the criminal investigation process. In doing so, she is usurping the role of the Commissioner of Police while the Police Service sits on its hands and awaits the outcome of the political administration’s self-administered probes.  

Take the case of LifeSport.

Long before the Express broke the story on May 18, the police should’ve been on to this case. The volume of large cheques entering the banking system should have been red-flagged and reported to the Financial Investigations Unit for referral to the police. In any serious country, the police would have moved in, seized files and records, and secured all relevant evidence as part of a full-fledged criminal investigation under the Proceeds of Crime Act. 

A properly conducted police investigation would have determined how high and how wide the corruption dragnet should be cast. Given the central role of the Cabinet in the LifeSport programme, the ministers of Sport and Finance and the Prime Minister herself would have had to be questioned and, possibly, investigated. Even the public servants who conducted the PM’s audit might’ve been questioned. The police would have sent their report to the DPP following which charges would be laid, if warranted.

Instead, we have the incredible spectacle of the Prime Minister’s audit report, remarkable for its silence on the political managers of the LifeSport programme, being sent to the DPP, while the Police Service stands idly by, apparently waiting for instructions. In the meantime, what has happened to the material evidence? Which documents are secure, which shredded, which stolen? What has happened to the witnesses? The investigation into LifeSport may be completely compromised by the Police Service’s failure to take charge of the investigation and to ensure that the Prime Minister’s investigation in no way interfered with the evidence or witnesses.

The most bizarre aspect of the entire case, however, has been the public’s easy acquiescence to prime ministerial authority.  Once the Prime Minister stepped forward to announce an audit into LifeSport, the entire country leaned back to await her findings, seemingly satisfied that hers was an appropriate response to allegations of theft and corruption involving her own Government’s handling of public funds. No voice was raised to demand an independent police investigation or to express concern about tampering of evidence or witnesses.  For all our sophistication and modern engagement with the ideas of democratic power, we conceded, without demur, to the Prime Minister’s assumed right and authority as if we were living under a colonial governor 200 years ago. 

We acquiesced, even with the experience of knowing that power will look after itself and its own, while denying justice to the rest. 

That there would be no finding of culpability by anyone within her Government  was a foregone conclusion even before the Prime Minister rose in Parliament on Friday. As in the case of Jack Warner, she would prefer to avoid open contentiousness with Anil Roberts for as long as public opinion will allow. 

If it becomes strategically necessary, she will trade in his head for a few points in her public approval ratings. The political benefits of a staggered decisiveness, one might say.

Still, even for the PM and the acting Commissioner of Police, there may be a certain innocence in their handling of the LifeSport fiasco. They, too, are part of the general culture that accepts the Office of PM as beyond the reach of investigation and accountability. We know no other history. 

Only a Police Service confident in its authority could have moved in and commandeered an investigation into the heart of State power.

LifeSport will not be the last. Distribution of State lands and houses, service contracts, the food card system and other social support initiatives, and expenditure on make-work programmes, all require investigation. 

For now, let’s embrace the blessing of LifeSport in the example it provides of why we need strong, independent and expert institutions for holding power to account. Neither partisan interests nor cynicism will get us there. To defend ourselves against the abuses of power, only strong institutions and a formed, empowered imagination will do.