Mark Wilson #2

The writer is an international journalist based in Port of Spain

Marlene McDonald, you are not the only one. Former cabinet ministers from Jamaica and Barbados are now before the courts. And both cases are looking like a tangled mess.

Before dawn on Wednesday last week, Jamaica’s former education minister, Ruel Reid, was arrested on corruption charges, along with his wife, Sharon, and daughter, Shanelle.

Also held were the president of the Caribbean Maritime University, Fritz Pinnock, who hired Sharon as legal affairs manager, and a local government councillor.

Reid and Pinnock are charged with diverting JA$56 million of public money for their own personal use—that’s close to $3 million. They deny wrongdoing.

They’re out on bail. The next court date is January 23. Almost certainly, this affair will run on and on. There’s a big difference between a politician getting charged and getting convicted. Just ask Basdeo Panday.

Former Barbados industry minister Donville Innis was arrested in the US in August last year on bribery and money laundering charges totalling around $125,000. He says political rivals were “trying to frame him”. He is out on bail, but can’t leave New York and has to wear an ankle bracelet. He’s next due in court on January 6.

His trial had been due to start at the end of this month. Trouble is, a Barbadian senior manager whose evidence is crucial for the prosecution has not agreed to give evidence in New York. It’s not completely clear why. There’s now a request for a video deposition.

There are also problems with the archaic 1929 Prevention of Corruption Act, still in force in Barbados and underpinning the US prosecution case.

This has a requirement for accused offenders to prove their innocence, which may be subject to constitutional challenge. Meanwhile, the maximum penalty is just US$1,250. Updated corruption legislation from 2012 has been passed by parliament, but not yet proclaimed.

Barbados ranks 25th-cleanest of 180 countries on Transparency International’s corruption perception index—the second-best ranking in Latin American and the Caribbean, after Uruguay.

Barbados may not deserve that nice ranking. Said Attorney General Dale Marshall in April: “We know now how bad corruption is here... we are planning to set up an anti-corruption agency.” He should move fast.

Transparency ranks Jamaica 70th, with T&T at 78th. A reputable opinion poll completed a month ago reported that 73 per cent of Jamaicans think their politicians are definitely involved in corruption. A further 19 per cent said politicians are somewhat involved. So that adds up to 92 per cent.

Besides Ruel Reid, only two Jamaican cabinet ministers have been charged with corruption offences since independence. One of them is Kern Spencer, who was in 2008 charged with irregularities in the distribution of four million Cuban ­energy-saving light bulbs. He was found not guilty.

He now says: “There’s just a general feeling in the public that all politicians are corrupt... It’s like they saying, ‘We ketch one and the good affi suffer for the bad’.”

The other ranking politician charged in Jamaica was a former labour minister, JAG Smith, who was jailed for extracting money from an overseas farm work programme in the 1980s. He was the only one to serve prison time. But few Jamaicans would say he was their only cabinet-level lawbreaker.

Giving Jamaica a clean pass on its economic programme last month, the IMF listed governance as a “deep-rooted societal challenges” which must be addressed if the country is to sustain “resilient and inclusive growth”.

So what’s going to happen?

Ruel Reid is principal of an ultra-prestige school, Kingston ­College, albeit on special leave since his appointment as minister in 2016. He has support.

Justice Minister Delroy Chuck was at first sharply critical of last week’s pre-dawn arrests, though he afterwards withdrew his remarks. His daughter, Carolyn, is Reid’s lawyer, although the minister himself has been on leave since 2016 from his family law firm.

Reid resigned in March, at the request of Prime Minister Andrew Holness. The police counter-terrorism and organised crime and financial investigation divisions launched investigations into reports of corruption—although with few details of the allegations made public.

Photos were flashed of Reid’s lavish 2017 birthday party, held on a yacht in Kingston harbour. Key documents went missing; the courts ordered them to be produced.

For pushing through the investigation, the Gleaner gives credit to parliament’s Public Administration and Appropriations Committee. Like the Jamaican parliament’s other oversight committees, it has been chaired since 2008 by an opposition member. When he took office in 2016, Holness tried to put a government supporter back in the chair. That move was blocked.

The Gleaner argues forcefully for the police counter-terrorism and organised crime and ­financial investigation divisions to be made standalone, independent law enforcement agencies. Legislation to that end has been passed; but it is not in force, because nobody has finalised the relevant regulations. The financial investigation division still has no powers of arrest.

Like a good few prime ministers, Holness was elected with promises to fight corruption. He has presided over a good few scandals since—most notably at the Petrojam oil refinery. Jamaica’s next election is due by June 2021.

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