PM on Integrity Commission’s lawsuit over funding: ‘Too much politics in probes’

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley during a media conference at the Diplomatic Centre on December 8, 2023. – File photo/Ayanna Kinsale

THE Prime Minister said the Integrity Commission is undertaking too many ill-advised and politically-motivated investigations which are eroding its limited funds.

Dr Rowley suggested that the commission undertake more circumspect investigations in accordance with the Integrity in Public Life Act (IPLA).

He made these comments on Wednesday in response to a statement issued by the commission on Tuesday which stated that it has initiated legal action in the High Court to determine what is the State’s obligation under the IPLA to provide it with adequate financial support to do its duty.

In its statement, the commission said the IPLA gives it the powers to ensure that people in public life and exercising public functions comply with its requirements.

The IPLA also empowers the commission to investigate alleged breaches of its provisions as well as possible offences under the Prevention of Corruption Act.

The commission said the State is under a statutory obligation to provide it with adequate human resources to discharge said mandate.

The IPLA gives the commission the power to determine its organisational chart as well as the terms and conditions of the contract employees that it engages in carrying out its mandate.

The commission said the importance of it 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 commission said it sought the opinion of the Solicitor General “as to its understanding of its mandate as well as its understanding of the State’s obligation in providing adequate financial support to enable it to discharge same.”

The Solicitor General, the commission continued, has agreed with its understanding of its mandate and of the State’s obligation, under the IPLA.

“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. “

Figures provided by the commission showed it received funding of $66,857,170, $83,556,000, $58,561,925, $37,322,550 and $25,650,452 for the periods 2009-2011, 2012-2014, 2015-2017, 2018-2020 and 2021-2023 respectively.

Against this background, the commission said it was constrained to initiate proceedings in the High Court to address this matter.

Attorneys Larry Lalla, SC, Kiel Taklalsingh and Kavita Anita Moonasar are the commission’s legal representatives.

The commission expressed its profound gratitude to these attorneys for their very generous support.

Newsday understands the commission’s attorneys are awaiting a court date for the matter to be heard.

In a Facebook post in response to the commission’s statement, Rowley said the tenor of the commission’s statement was that it 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.”

He said one of those matters was “a very recent investigation which was launched on November 23, 2023 and concluded on December 29, 2023 with respect to a matter which had previously been investigated and reinvestigated with no finding of a breach of the Act (IPLA).”

That matter involved what was seen as Rowley’s failure to declare a townhouse he purchased in Tobago among his assets to the commission on one of his declaration forms.

Rowley said, “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.”

The commission’s complaints about budgetary constraints have been documented in two recent annual reports that have been submitted to Parliament.

In its 2022 report, the commission said it faces “a financial stranglehold, owing to the deficient and significantly depleted budget, which suffocates the efforts of the commission to perform its statutory duties.”

The commission added that the drastic depletion of the budget can be observed by comparing $26 million allocated to it in 2015 with the figure of $8.6 million allocated in 2023.

While it received a small increase from $8 million in 2022 to $ 8.6 million in 2023, the commission said the latter and most recent figure is woefully short of what is required to ensure the implementation of its mandates.

The commission said it has several open positions which cannot be filled due to lack of funding.

“This has severely affected the progress of the investigations unit in particular.”

UNC MP Dr Roodal Moonilal and Senator Jayanti Lutchmedial during a JSC meeting at Parliament on February 27, 2023. – File photo/Ayanna Kinsale

The commission said the unit has a total of 44 active investigations dating back to 2013 and has only closed ten as at December 2022 “as more human resource is needed to bring closure to matters at hand.”

The commission added that failure to grant it additional funding to meet its staffing expenses “will lead to the end of contract employment for several staff members as the commission will not be in a position to remunerate persons.”

Similar concerns about the effects of budgetary constraints on the commission’s operations were reflected in its 2021 report.

In that report, the commission said, “Notably, although historically significant budgets were approved, the various allocations did not reflect the organisation’s core needs.”

Commenting on a question about staffing at the commission during a meeting of the Standing Finance Committee meeting of the House of Representatives last October, Finance Minister Colm Imbert said vacancies at the commission are filled by the Public Service Commission and government had no role in that exercise.

At an event hosted by the commission in Westmoorings on December 8, 2023, its chairman Prof Rajendra Ramlogan said financial constraints were a major hurdle for the commission.

With a staff reduced from 63 to 26 and limited funds, Ramlogan said it was challenging for the commission to carry out investigations effectively.

Among the other investigations the commission is dealing with is one into a leaked audio recording of what is claimed to be of two high-ranking Tobago government officials discussing the use of public funds to hire people to carry out a political propaganda campaign.

The commission has also been dealing with several public officials who have not file their declarations of assets with them.

Last November, the commission named officials who did not file their declarations of assets with it in 2022.

They included Energy Minister Stuart Young, Government Senator Laurel Lezama Lee Sing, Oropouche East MP Dr Roodal Moonilal , Opposition Senator Jayanti Lutchmedial, Tobago House of Assembly Chief Secretary Farley Augustine and Independent Senator Deoroop Teemal. Young and Moonilal said they were in the process of filing their declarations.

Young said, “Unfortunately, I didn’t file my forms on time. They were prepared in draft and I was awaiting confirmation of information from third-party institutions and it slipped through the cracks which is regretted. I will be filing shortly in keeping with my obligations.”

Energy Minister Stuart Young during a media conference on December 9, 2022. – File photo/Ayanna Kinsale

Moonilal said he was also finalising his documents for submission to the commission.

But he believed the commission should take some things into account.

“The Integrity Commission must recognise that banks and other financial institutions can be as tardy and incompetent as the central government.”

Moonilal said, “It takes an awful amount of time to get basic data from several financial institutions.”

Lutchmedial indicated that she experienced similar challenges.

“It’s a long and tedious process which requires me to go to the bank, insurance company, etc and my schedule is very hectic.”

In addition to her senatorial duties, Lutchmedial is an attorney.

Last August, the commission said it was able to finally clear a backlog of over 3,000 unfiled Declarations of Income, Assets and Liabilities and Statements of Registrable Interests from people in public life for 2014-2021.