In a bid to be more transparent about the operations of the Integrity Commission, chairman Ken Gordon has attempted to answer a call for the Commission to explain the decision it took to absolve Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar of fault with regard to her sister's travel at State expense.
But last week he would only offer that the Commission was guided by legal advice from a Senior Counsel and that communication from the Commission to the complainant was always confidential.
Last Friday, at a stakeholder meeting to outline proposed changes to the Integrity in Public Life Act (IPLA) at the Hyatt Regency Trinidad in Port of Spain, Gordon said the Commission was also guided by its own judgment on the issue.
The State spent $868,268.11 on Newton's travel and other associated costs between June 1, 2010 and March 31, 2012.
At the meeting, Gordon observed the Commissioner Ann Marie Bissessar, a relative of the Prime Minister who sits on the board of the Commission recused herself from deliberations on the Vidwatie Newton matter.
In her tenure as Prime Minister, Persad-Bissessar has released two letters to the public from the Integrity Commission which has cleared her of any breaches — the first was her stay at the her friend Ralph Gopaul's residence after elections in May 2010 and the other was the use of State money to fund her sister's travel.
Asked why the Prime Minister's matters are often dealt with quickly, Gordon said the Newton matter sat with the Integrity Commission for about six months.
He had nothing to say about the favourable outcomes of both matters.
He refused to comment on a link between an employee of the Commission and Attorney General Anand Ramlogan about which the Sunday Express previously raised questions in the context of the impartiality of the decisions arrived at by the Commission.
Gordon had noted that the Commission had referred matters to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) for his attention and it was at his discretion.
However, the Commission erred when it referred an obvious breach of the Code of Conduct which was not an offence to DPP Roger Gaspard in the case of former finance minister Karen Nunez-Tesheira for the redemption of funds from CLICO Investment Bank (CIB).
Legal experts have told the Sunday Express that such breaches of the Code are not criminal in nature and cannot therefore be referred to the police.
This was confirmed to the Sunday Express by a former chairman of the Commission. The Commission apologised for this error publicly but the damage to Nunez-Tesheira had already been done, said a source who declined to be named.
Last week, Chief Justice Ivor Archie spoke of a need for a financially independent judiciary to disabuse any perception of partisanship because it relies on funding from the government. The Financial Action Task Force, (FATF) has also called for the Financial Intelligence Unit ( FIU) to be financially independent to be able to properly manage its affairs free from political interference.
Questioned on how the Integrity Commission weighed in on this matter given that it gets funding from the government, Gordon responded: "On a daily basis we relate to the DPP when we send recommendations or if we have to go to the Government for anything we deal with the Attorney General.
"There has been been absolutely no attempt to persuade the Commission because they know we will shout loud."
During the question and answer segment of the meeting, attorney Carol Cuffy-Dowlath questioned Gordon on how susceptible the Commission was to infiltration by party supporters.
Gordon observed that the Commissioners were independent.
"One can never say never. You don't know how bold some people can be," he said. "It is always around the corner."
The Sunday Express obtained a copy of the legal advice the Integrity Commission used in coming to its conclusion about the Vidwatie Newton travel issue.
The advice noted that that Cabinet is authorised to approve the payment of first class travel and per diem allowances for someone to accompany the Prime Minister on foreign travel as her travel assistant.
"There is nothing which prevents Cabinet from approving such expenditure in relation to a person who is not a public officer and there is likewise nothing which prevents Cabinet from approving such expenditure in relation to the Prime Minister's sister.
"While the relevant Ministerial circular could have been expressed in clearer language, I (the lawyer) am satisfied that a person authorised to accompany the Prime Minister on official business abroad as her travel assistant would herself be travelling abroad on official business for the circular," it said.
The advice noted there is no breach of Cabinet's or the Ministry of Finance's internal regulations governing the payment of per diem allowances and first class air fare and as similar breach under the Integrity in Public Life Act.
"Further, given that it does not appear that Ms Newton was appointed to an office and paid a salary for her services she provided to the Prime Minister, it could not be said that her personal interests were being furthered. And even if it could be said that they were, the particular expenditure incurred could not be said to have been either preferential or undue or improper once it is appreciated that the peculiar services which one imagines the Prime Minister's sister would have rendered could not have been carried out other than by someone intimately connected to the Prime Minister.
"Likewise, given that the Prime Minister was travelling on official business and there is nothing to gainsay that her sister travelling with her to assist her in that regard, it could not be said either that the Prime Minister's personal interests were being served. It was the Prime Minister's public interests as the country's premier representative which were being furthered," the advice stated.