Integrity Commission seeks clarity on hiring practices

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

The Hall of Justice – File photo by Jeff Mayers

A High Court judge is being asked to provide clarity on the power of the Integrity Commission to develop its own organisational structure, set its own terms for hiring staff and alter short-term contracts as it sees fit.

These are the questions on which the commission asked the court to provide guidance in an interpretation claim filed on December 28, 2023.

Newsday understands the claim has been assigned to Justice Marissa Robertson. No date has been set for the first hearing.

The interpretation claim said the commission was entitled to make the claim as a constitutional body. It cited those sections of the act which outline its functions.

“The commission plays an indispensable role and function within Trinidad and Tobago. The investigation and determination of allegations of corruption and wrongdoing by persons in public life is a matter of great public importance, and issues affecting the functioning of and interpretation of the ILPA is a matter suitable to the interpretative jurisdiction of the High Court,” the claim said.

In a release on January 2, the commission referred to the claim, emphasising that its mandate was to investigate alleged breaches of its provisions as well as possible offences under the Prevention of Corruption Act and ensure people in public life and people exercising public functions comply with the requirements of the IPLA.

The release said while the State was under a statutory obligation to provide the commission with adequate human resources to discharge its mandate, the act gave it the power to determine its organisational chart and the terms and conditions of contract employees.

“The importance of the commission being able to employ staff to enable it to discharge its mandate and to function with the independence which the IPLA dictates requires no explanation,” the release said.

Admitting it was “gravely concerned” about its budgetary allocations, the commission, in its release, said it had sought the opinion of the Solicitor General to better understand its mandate and the State’s obligation to provide adequate financial support.

“The Solicitor General has agreed with the commission’s understanding of its mandate and of the State’s obligation. That notwithstanding, and despite consistent pleas during the entirety of its tenure, budgetary allocations to the 17th commission have been the leanest in 15 years; too lean, if the trend continues, for the commission to effectively function.”

It also said because of this, the commission “was constrained to initiate proceedings in the High Court to determine the intent and meaning of the relevant provisions of the IPLA, and in particular, the State’s obligation in providing the commission with adequate financial support to discharge its mandate.”

The interpretation claim said there appeared, on a clear reading of sections 9(2) and 9(5) of the ILPA, to be “no basis” for Cabinet to determine its staffing needs.

The claim said it was for the commission alone to determine what is adequate for the prompt and efficient discharge of its duties and to ensure its staffing needs align with its functions. The claim said the IC’s position was buttressed by an opinion of the Solicitor General.

However, the claim noted its position was contrary to that of the Chief Personnel Officer, “who is of the opinion that the employment of staff by the commission is to be created by Cabinet with terms and conditions in line with those of the public sector with technical assistance by the personnel department as and when required by the commission.”

The claim said after receiving the Solicitor General’s advice, the commission submitted a draft note to Cabinet on August 12, 2022, which included its proposed organisational chart. It said there has been no substantive response from the Ministry of Public Administration.

The claim went on to say, “There is an obvious need and public interest in resolving this question as there are conflicting views between the Solicitor General and the Chief Personnel Officer which impact upon the functions and powers of the Integrity Commission.”

On the question of the hiring of staff on its own terms and conditions, the claim said the current practice was the general policy for contract employment guided by Cabinet Minute No 239-2016/02/18 and the personnel department circular memorandum on revised guidelines for contract employment in government ministries, departments and statutory authorities, dated May 18, 2006.

The claim said these policy documents stipulate that a request for contract positions shall be submitted for the consideration of Cabinet, and once approved, a process for the selection of people to fill positions should include advertising the position and holding interviews.

However, the commission said it was entitled to appoint or employ staff on such terms and conditions as it sees fit.

It said Parliament gave it the power to do so.

“Thus, it is clear that Parliament intended the commission to determine the terms and conditions of employment of employees at the commission.”

The claim quoted the Solicitor General’s advice as well as the position of the CPO.

“The resolution of this matter by the court will allow for all relevant parties to have input in accordance with natural justice and will secure a binding determination.”

It said the issues raised will go towards the ability of the commission to effectively investigate and unearth corruption in public office, and a determination by the court will provide guidance on the development of any future legislation which may be required to regulate and improve the commission’s function.

The commission is represented by Larry Lalla, SC, Kiel Taklalsingh, Kavita Anita Moonasar, and Renata Ramlochan, who the commission said had agreed to provide their services pro bono.

The commission’s statement drew the ire of the Prime Minister, who, in a statement on January 3, said, “I have seen the recent release from the chairman of the Integrity Commission.

“The tenor of which suggests that the Integrity Commission is underfunded.

“This is an interesting perspective, having regard to the number of investigations which I am personally aware have been launched by the very said Integrity Commission, including more than one in relation to myself, and in particular, a very recent investigation which was launched on November 23rd, 2023 and concluded on December 29th, 2023 with respect to a matter which had previously been investigated and reinvestigated with no finding of a breach of the Act.

“I permit myself to posit that maybe the issue is far too many ill-advised and politically motivated investigations have been embarked upon by the Integrity Commission, and more circumspect investigations need to be conducted in accordance with the letter and spirit of the act.”

In an immediate response to the Prime Minister, commission chairman Prof Rajendra Ramlogan said he had not issued any press release on funding for the commission.

Ramlogan’s term was not renewed by President Christine Kangaloo. On Friday, Kangaloo appointed business and financial consultant Haydn Gittens as the new chairman of the Integrity Commmission.