THE present wave of corruption in public office is unprecedented in modern Jamaica. However, corruption is not new to the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP).
The party boasts a well-established tradition of corrupt behaviour as JLP ministers of Government have presided over wanton robbery of the public purse, and some of them have been convicted and sentenced to serve time in prison.
In the 1950s, former JLP Minister of Education Joe Z Malcolm was sentenced to 12 months at hard labour for defrauding his constituents. Malcom’s successor in the Ministry of Education, LL Simmonds, was next. He was convicted in July 1954 for breaches of the Official Secrets Act, and sentenced to 15 months at hard labour.
In the decade of the 1960s, the former minister of state in the Ministry of Education Arthur Burt may well have been the third to face the courts and be sentenced for his role in the corrupt handling of the school building programme (1967-71) financed by the World Bank. A report from the commission of enquiry established to probe the matter stated that “although suggestions of a grave character were made before the commission involving Dr Burt” he fled the island to avoid appearing before the commission and facing criminal charges.
In February 1990 JAG Smith, former JLP minister of labour, was charged with receiving US$70,000 deemed by the director of public prosecutions to have been unlawfully obtained from farm workers’ savings. He was also charged with conspiracy to defraud. He was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison at hard labour.
One would have thought that the JLP would want to break with its tradition of corruption, and listening to Prime Minister Holness’s lofty pronouncements of integrity at his swearing-in, many Jamaicans expected honesty and transparency from the new Government. Instead, what we have experienced is an Administration that has taken corruption to another level.
Former JLP Minister of Education Ruel Reid was hastily removed from office to facilitate a full investigation of reports of corruption, nepotism and misappropriation of public funds within the ministry as well as its agencies, including Caribbean Maritime University.
Andrew Wheatley has been relieved of his ministerial responsibility after exposure of widespread corruption in the agencies for which he had portfolio responsibility. We anxiously await the reports from ongoing investigations in the Petrojam scandal.
At present, it is the Ministry of Health and Wellness which is under the microscope, and this, by no means, exhausts the list of corrupt practices that have been exposed since the Holness Administration has taken office.
What is shocking to the Jamaican public is not only the unprecedented depth and breadth of corruption which is being unearthed, but the arrogance of the perpetrators and the refusal of the prime minister to hold his colleagues accountable in any meaningful way.
Corrupt practices seem to have become a way of life for this Administration. It hardly matters to them the poverty that is being experienced by the people they have offered themselves to represent. They don’t seem to care that the health services are inadequately funded. They are content to have an under-funded and ill-equipped security force, despite the escalating criminal violence. Even as the people suffer, the rape of the public purse continues and the perpetrators go about their criminal pursuits with the confidence that they are protected.
Whatever corruption took place under previous Administrations does not and cannot preclude the responsibility of civil society to expose the corruption that is presently enriching a connected criminal clique and depriving critical services like security and health of urgently needed investments.
The Jamaican people cannot remain indifferent to the present wave of corruption. We must demand immediate action on the following list of initiatives that have been put forward. These include:
* The single anti-corruption agency/ the Integrity Commission.
* The criminalisation of breaches of the Political Code of Conduct.
* The strengthening of the powers of the political ombudsman.
The National Integrity Action estimates that the cost of corruption to the Jamaican people is now running into billions of dollars. It is time to bring this Administration to book.
— K Churchill Neita is a veteran attorney-at-law and member of the People’s National Party.