Jan 22, 2021 Editorial
Kaieteur News – In the lead up to the 2015 elections, the Guyanese public was treated to the scandalous revelation that Ministers and friends of the then People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) government were entitled to and took abusive advantage of a taxpayer-funded healthcare fund that covered even elective and cosmetic medical procedures. Public outcry to the scandal itself and the hubris and entitlement with which public criticism was responded to played no small part in the then incumbent losing to the A Partnership for National Unity+Alliance For Change (APNU+AFC) opposition coalition.
When the David Granger administration came into power and, within a few months, increased the salaries of ministers by up to 50 percent, after an initial denial about the increases, the rationale was then floated that the increased salaries would act as a disincentive against the sort of costly abuse of power that the healthcare scandal under its predecessor encapsulated.
Clearly it did not work. The recent revelation that David Patterson, David Granger’s Minister of Public Infrastructure, collected gifts that most notably included an expensive ‘bangle’ from agencies under his direct purview is redolent, and then some, of precisely what the Coalition campaigned against and promised not to do, considering that a preliminary probe revealed that Patterson’s junior minister, Annette Ferguson, was also in receipt of expensive jewellery and other items from some of those agencies.
While there are clear parallels, the added complexity of Banglegate and its key departure from the health benefits scandal under the PPP/C is that, what took place was in fact the structured transfer of state funds, invested in assets, to ministers of government. Taxpayer funded jewellery worth several months of an average public service employee’s salary going into the possession of a minister of government is completely unjustifiable in itself in any one instance, but seen in totem represents what is tantamount to graft when the value of the objects being given is considered.
Patterson’s response of course has not been helpful in any way in resolving this issue. His first response, when the story of him having received two pieces of jewellery came out, was that he did not receive any such jewellery and the reports that he did were false considering that he did not even wear jewellery. When multiple pictures were posted on social media showing him wearing a band or a bracelet, Patterson then claimed that what he was pictured wearing was a family heirloom. He then subsequently acknowledged that he did in fact collect the jewellery he originally and emphatically claimed that he did not, but that he had no part in procuring them and that the practice was perfectly normal, despite producing no evidence of any equivalent gift-giving.
It takes no small amount of hubris for the sitting head of the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee, a seat Patterson currently occupies, to seek to justify his receipts of publicly funded gifts from state agencies under his control, some of which by themselves either equate to or surpass his ministerial salary at the time they were given. In the short term, failing to return the gifts or providing restitution to their value, Patterson should either resign or be otherwise removed from the PAC – his continued tenure there would make a mockery of the purpose of the Committee which is, as apparently needs restating, to provide oversight to ensure the prudent and ethical expenditure of public funds. What should be troubling in all this is the fact that his status as PAC Chair appears dependent solely on his own discretion, or that of the Leader of the Opposition, Joseph Harmon who had put forward the Granger administration response of “no apologies” for the clandestine salary increase, or Granger himself as Head of the APNU+AFC list, now in perpetual hiding from the public in the midst of increasing exposure of what was clearly a culture of graft under his administration.
All that said, the larger issue here is that both major political parties continue to refuse to put in place either policy or legislation on gifts and emoluments, defining statutory caps on what can be accepted in what time period, what should be declared and when, and penalties for breaching either the caps or the reporting requirements on gifts. Whether it is elective healthcare or bling, no member of any already generously remunerated executive should be gaming the system to receive extra benefits above and beyond what is defined in their contract of employment. If the Dr. Irfaan Ali administration is serious about fighting entitlements and extra emoluments, it has to go beyond the strategy of merely exposing what took place under its predecessor and take concrete steps towards putting in place a gifts and emoluments infrastructure built upon both an enforceable executive code of conduct and legislation.
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