PM: Corruption widespread in Trinidad and Tobago – Whistleblower Bill laid in Parliament

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley. – File photo by Ayanna Kinsale

THE Prime Minister said on June 14 corruption was widespread in Trinidad and Tobago, even reaching the clergy and MPs, as he laid the Whistleblower Bill 2022 in the House of Representatives, which he hoped would encourage people to expose wrongdoing in the private or public sector.

The bill’s long title says it aims to “combat corruption and other wrongdoings by encouraging and facilitating disclosures of improper conduct”, to protect whistleblowers from detrimental action, and to regulate the handling of such disclosures.

Dr Rowley said a “huge number” of instances of corruption took place in 2010-2015, encouraged by the government of the day, (the People’s Partnership).

The PM said that with corruption as the top issue in the 2015 general election, the PNM had promised to make it easier for people to disclose what they knew, so as to hold wrongdoers accountable.

He said very early in its term, his Government had drafted the 2022 bill and sent it to a joint select committee (JSC) so it would not be partisan.

The PM related upon his Government taking office, it had evidence of corruption including sums involved and perpetrators.

“Some of those investigations involved members of the House, some of whom are in the House today and may take part in the debate.

“Allegations of corruption are not just ‘old talk’, but in many instances are supported by serious, disturbing pools of fact.”

He said while the public often complained the police knew nothing, some people had information on corruption whose disclosure could help TT create a climate of honesty and integrity.

Rowley said despite billions spent globally on auditing in the public and private sectors, experts said that work identified only 15 per cent of corruption and wrongdoing.

“These audits are only able to unearth a minuscule fraction of the matters of concern,” he lamented.

The PM in contrast said the bill would encourage people to disclose what they knew, so wrongdoers could be held to account, rather than having corruption grow and fester.

“I have been in public life for 40 odd years, and I can tell you the one thing I am alarmed about – and I feel sometimes we are not in a position to even scratch the surface of the problem – is the pervasive nature of corruption across TT.

“It does not apply to any particular location, any particular category of person, any particular station or person in the society. Instances of corruption or indications of corrupt practice surface from every layer and every facet of TT, even the clergy.”

He recalled a one-term past MP.

“When I got to know him, I discovered he was thrown out of a church for mishandling church money.”

The PM recalled his days at the University of the West (UWI), Mona, Jamaica, where someone once complained his music speakers were stolen at Aquinas House where priests were trained.

“That kind of shake me up. He is going to be a priest and maybe a bishop some time. It is everywhere and everybody.

“The frailty of human beings where people want to get more than they are allowed, to get benefits they are not entitled to, and of course to get an advantage in many instances over other people.”

Rowley: Government will pass bill at all costs

Rowley said there was clearly a need for such whistleblower legislation. The PM lamented the Opposition’s stance in the JSC against the bill.

“If there is a particular problem with a particular clause and you identify it, then we will be prepared to look at it and to modify it if that is reasonable.

“But to just take a position you are not going to support it, is telling me you are supporting something else.”

Rowley said 99 per cent of corruption in the public sector actually also involved the private sector.

He recalled hearing of a businessman bribing a public official with $600,000 to reduce his $30 million tax liability to $1 million.

The PM recalled the shock of a Canadian consultant to the Board of Inland Revenue (BIR) at seeing a public employee’s business card featuring a second side advertising his link to a dubious business place in Chaguanas.

Saying the Canadian was shocked and horrified, Rowley said that type of thing happened all over TT, and someone usually knew about it.

He said if the bill needed a special majority, he would ask Attorney General Reginald Armour to adjust it.

While the bill may not be the best, Rowley said it should be supported, saying, “Half a loaf is far better than no loaf.”

Rowley, in his wind-up later, retorted to three points made by Oropouche East MP Dr Roodal Moonilal, namely an allegation of a lack of action by the Government against corruption, the alleged firing of officials of the Secondary Roads Rehabilitation Company and the fate of the Point Fortin Highway.

Firstly, Rowley read out a search warrant issued by an acting chief magistrate in 2017 to the police service’s Anti Corruption Bureau with Moonilal as the first of nine people under investigation in a matter involving alleged “misconduct in public office.”

Saying the case had reached to the Privy Council with the State successful at every stage of the court process, Rowley chided Moonilal for saying TT needed no whistleblower legislation.

Regarding the Moonilal’s claims that ten people had been fired from the Secondary Roads Rehabilitation Company for complaining of underfunding to the tune of $100 million, the PM said the Government fired nobody but decided to wind up the company.

Saying the company was previously transferred from the Ministry of Local Government to the Ministry of Works and Transport to get better synergies, he said the saga had gone on for months and its closure had not been because of anything that happened this week (that is, the company officials complaining of underfunding at June 12’s Public Administration and Appropriations Committee) sitting.

Saying “nothing is further from the truth,” he said no one was fired because they had said something.

Rowley recalled Local Government Minister Faris Al-Rawi earlier noting the conviction of Vincent Nelson, SC, as proof the Government had acted against corruption.

Saying one Carib beer crate can hold $1 million in cash, he asked viewers to picture 900 crates stacked up and said that was the sum the former government had allowed OAS Construtora to avoid repaying to TT over the Point Fortin Highway construction, by removing a contract clause just before the 2015 general elections.

Thanking Energy Minister Stuart Young for helping recoup these funds, he said the Government funded the San Fernando leg of the highway with those funds.

Rowley vowed to pass the bill, even if using just whatever authority the government benches had. Debate on the bill adjourned to next Friday, June 21, at 1.30 pm.

Whistleblower protected from retaliation

In its explanatory note, the bill says a whistleblower is granted “immunity from criminal, civil and disciplinary proceedings.”

The bill protects whistleblowers from being “harassed, intimidated or victimised” or “suffering injury, loss or damage in relation to his employment, family life, career, profession, trade or business.”

It lists types of “improper conduct” that may be disclosed, if it has occurred, is occurring or likely to occur. This conduct relates to a criminal offence; failure to carry out a legal obligation; conduct likely to cause a miscarriage of justice, threaten someone’s health or safety, harm the environment, or grossly mismanage an activity using public funds; victimises a whistleblower; shows unfair discrimination on the basis of gender, race, place of origin, social class, colour, religion or political opinion; or wilfully conceals any of these acts.

A disclosure is protected if true, made in good faith, discloses improper conduct, and is not made for personal gain.

The bill provides hefty penalties of imprisonment and fines for anyone impeding whistle blowing, such as a breach of the confidentiality of a disclosure or obstructing/victimising a whistleblower.

A whistleblower may report to a whistle-blowing unit set up by his employer, or may opt to report externally to one of a list of 21 designated authorities. Those include the Auditor General’s Department, Board of Inland Revenue, Central Bank, Children’s Authority, Environmental Management Authority, Financial Intelligence Unit, Integrity Commission, Office of Procurement Regulation, Office of Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), and the police.