The Integrity Commission, like the country and the public officers it keeps in check, is experiencing some growing pains.
This is the view of its chairman Ken Gordon.
Even as the government was seeking to repeal Section 34 of the Administration of Justice (Indictable Proceedings) Act last week, which would seemingly have benefitted two financiers of the UNC-dominated coalition government, the Integrity Commission announced it wanted to overhaul its declaration forms to include contributions made to political parties.
Gordon said last week that revising the documents was necessary because the questions on the present forms "weren't revealing the type of information which was ideal".
He was speaking with the Sunday Express during an interview at the commission's offices on Independence Square, Port of Spain, last week.
The overhauling of the declaration forms is just one of 16 recommendations which the commission is seeking to strengthen its powers with a revised Integrity in Public Life Act (IPLA) to properly supervise the people under its watch.
Gordon expects that "waves will occur" but it is necessary in establishing values and standards in a country. Establishing values and standards, he espoused, is a long-haul process that must come from the top.
"But for the top to give that example, they must be made accountable. They are only made accountable when you have controls in place so that when they go wrong, they are called to book. It's a process.
"You can't legislate that process overnight. You can do things that build standards, improve values of a society. Those you can do. But that takes time. What we are seeking to do is not going to have an effect in 12 months' time.
"It will begin to put in place, the standards around which a community is built and it will raise the values if we do it right. It's a long haul. You will impact some people along the way but you are really seeking to create a different kind of environment so that your people at the top have to respond to that environment or they will not get support because the community at large is expecting a different level of performance," he told the Sunday Express.
The commission is hoping to once more include judges among those people who file declarations even though the judges successfully challenged such a proposal in the courts.
Gordon suggested that at 50-year-old, Trinidad and Tobago was still a young nation.
"So would you say the country is having growing pains?" asked the Sunday Express.
"Of course we are. An institution like the one we are trying to structure here, like the Integrity Commission, these things are much easier to structure in societies where people have standards and know how you behave in certain given situations. Resigning here from a body is the last thing anybody does, not the first thing they do as a matter of principle.
"Principle, I regret to say, is not in many areas. Those people who are guided by principle in their behaviour certainly in terms of the norm for leadership are very few," he said.
Gordon was more forgiving than the public outcry over the Section 34 legislation which embroiled the executive and legislative arms of governance last week.
While he did not condone the passage of such legislation, he explained: "These things are inevitable. You don't become a nation overnight. You don't become a nation unscathed. Many places become nations because they have to fight for it—wars and all sorts of things happen before you become a nation. You become a nation when you are tested and out of those differences you go forward."
The actions of two senior Cabinet members—Attorney General Anand Ramlogan and Justice Minister Herbert Volney— were put under the microscope during the parliamentary debate.
Asked whether he thought integrity still existed in public life, Gordon responded: "Yes, I do."
Sunday Express: "In what areas?"
"I think generally there is integrity. When the exceptions are given a lot of publicity, these are the things that stand out. But I think you have a large body of people who perform their tasks every day with a large degree of integrity. When one does not, it's given a lot of play and that's important because the whole intention is to stamp it out," he explained.
For his part, he has little regret about assuming the chairmanship even though tension existed—with deputy chair Gladys Gafoor—which was taken to court. Even though she remains suspended, Gafoor is still the deputy chair.
"We've had some difficulty. There are times when we've had to forgo meetings—one suspended and one recused but people have been prepared to work around it," he said.
Ultimately, it is the board of the commission from which final clearance is given to people who are investigated, explained Gordon.
Last Thursday, the Integrity Commission cleared Vidwatie Newton, the sister of Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar who often travelled with her, of any breaches in the Integrity in Public Life Act.
Former head of the Public Service, Reginald Dumas, has called on the Commission to give reasons for their judgment.
Gordon affirmed that it was entirely a board decision.
"The thing is, we act on the best advice which is available. And when something comes up, if we have any doubt about it, we would get advice. Of course, in this case, we ensured we got the very best advice as we always try to do," he said.
On the issue of which cases are prioritised, given the backlog of work which the commission currently has to undertake, Gordon explained that it was an internal management issue.
"It's human, I suppose, to prefer to want to be investigating matters with heightened interest which are national in scope rather than simply checking forms. So these are human factors," he said.
Sunday Express: "How do you respond to the criticism that the Integrity Commission is no more than a toothless watchdog?"
"I won't have used that same description. But at the same time there are a number of instances where the Integrity Commission could be more effective if the authority lines were more clearly spelt out," he said.
It's those authority lines which Gordon is hoping to re-define with a revised Integrity Act.
Sunday Express: "Do you think T&T was ready for an Integrity Commission like that?"
"The enlightened community will support it. The community that is not affected will not support it. Those who are affected will oppose it. But you go forward provided you do the right thing, provided that you are not going to be put off because you are criticised. You must do what you think is right," he said.
Questioned on what feedback he had received so far, he said: "It is now being digested. That is to come."
Gordon explained that he was satisfied that the changes would bring about an improvement.
Noting that changes aren't usually easy, he explained: "That's how progress occurs. You evolve into things."
It's not the first time the Integrity Commission has attempted to beef up its powers. Gordon pointed out that a similar exercise was conducted by the Fujitsu Group in 2005 which provided a blueprint for the proposed changes. He declined answering a question on why those changes weren't put in motion since then.
Sunday Express: "While there's a perception of corruption, there's no successful prosecution of corruption of any cases brought by Integrity Commission. How do you respond?"
Gordon noted that the Integrity Commission has managed to get at least one former prime minister to the courts on an issue of non-declaration.
While he remains concerned about white-collar crime and prosecution, Gordon explained: "I do not necessarily believe that because there's been so much publicity of these things that it means crime is as bad as some people think. I think the publicity has led some people to form the view that that kind of crime is more extensive than it actually is."
Under his watch, Gordon is hoping that the Integrity Commission will be able to share information with other agencies such as the Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) and the Police Service in investigations.
He said what's being proposed is not a novel concept but would achieve the wide purpose of stopping crime.
Asked about leaks in the Integrity Commission, Gordon responded: "There used to be leaks."
The Sunday Express pointed out that there may be leaks in other organisations with people's confidential information.
"That is always a risk. You must do everything to plug it. You are dealing with situation international in scope. Dealing with a level of dishonesty, crime, money laundering and so on. And if you deny yourself information which is available from even within your services committed to secrecy and confidentiality, you are virtually shooting yourself in the foot," he said.
The following is summary of recommendations which the Integrity Commission is hoping to include in a revised Integrity in Public Life Act. For the next three weeks, the recommendations will be available for public comment after which, it will be sent to Attorney General Anand Ramlogan with the expectation that it will be laid in Parliament.
1. Fine tune "definitions' so that the anti-corruption activities of the commission are all embracing.
2. Create a specific portion of the act to focus on examination of public bodies.
3. Overhaul the Financial Disclosure provisions of the act to facilitate faster processing of declarations as well as the efficient verification of these declarations. Include in this overhaul the power to levy fines and penalties on persons who do not file declarations.
4. There should be penalties for breaches of the Code of Conduct.
5. Establish a regime of practices for the processing of declarations from persons exercising public functions who are not captured under the IPLA to be managed by their respective commissions.
6. Review the role of the Tribunal in the processing of declarations and widen its applicability to investigations.
7. Fine-tune the role of the Blind Trust, its implementation, management and the oversight role of the commission.
8. Facilitate the confidential reporting of corrupt practices in institutions by public officers.
9. Spell out the enforcement of the powers of authorising investigations, summoning witnesses and subpoena and the like by the commission.
10. Spell out provision for the protection of whistle-blowers.
11. Widen the investigative powers of the commission to include search and seizure as well as arrest.
12. Review and increase the schedule of persons in public life.
13. Review and increase the list of persons exercising public functions to include all institutions that handle 'public money".
14. Increase and improve contents of declaration forms to facilitate the submission of more relevant information to fight corruption and to reveal potential sources of conflicts of interest.
15. Review all associated legislation so that there is a consistent focus on eliminating corruption.
16. Create a regime of systemic arrangements to facilitate the exchange of information between all institutions involved in the fight against corruption and all institutions that routinely collect such data that would aid in such a fight.