Thursday, February 22, 2018

Wrong move by PM

Express editorial logo397

Mark Fraser

By instructing the Attorney General to determine the best way forward in the controversial matter of financial settlements by the State to prisoners, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar has effectively dismissed the public’s demand for an independent investigation.

Her insistence that the Attorney General is the appropriate person to investigate this matter is consistent with the position she took last year after receiving a letter from then Solicitor General Eleanor Donaldson-Honeywell outlining her concerns about a possible scam. Back then, instead of investigating the SG’s concerns or even taking up the matter with her, the PM had simply passed the SG’s letter to the AG for handling. She did not seem to appreciate then, as she clearly does not now, the unusual nature of the step taken by the SG to communicate her concerns to the Prime Minister over the head of the AG with whom she worked and who signs off on financial settlements on the State’s behalf.

The fact that the Law Association has now joined the call for an immediate independent investigation into the allegations of possible unethical business dealings by attorneys involved in some cases, should alert the PM to public sentiment in this matter.

The nature of these allegations brings into question actions and decision within the Office of the Attorney General itself. Emphatic assurances from the Attorney General about the integrity of the operations of his office in this matter will not assuage public concern. Not because of anything he says or does, but because in this particular matter involving allegations about actions and decisions to which he is a party, the AG cannot, by definition, investigate this matter. Having him involved in the probe would only serve to compromise it.

As attorneys who would understand the legal maxim of justice not only being done, but being seen to be done, the PM and her AG should appreciate the need for an independent investigation into the matters raised by the then Solicitor General.

Allowing the AG to remain at the front and centre of the Government’s response to public concerns on this issue will only aggravate the situation. Now that the issue has blown up in the public domain, the only way for the situation to be retrieved is for the PM to address the concerns raised in the SG’s letter with the seriousness that it deserves. Passing the concerns to the AG a second time serves no purpose.

In her response to the public’s call for an investigation, it is difficult to understand why the Prime Minister has not grasped the key point behind the demand for an independent investigation—which is that, in this case, the AG has a possible conflict of interest.

By insisting that the AG must lead the investigation, the Prime Minister has all but assured that the investigative process will be undermined by a lack of trust by key stakeholders.

For this matter to be satisfactorily dealt with, the Prime Minister must re-think her decision to put the investigation into the hands of the Attorney General.