Contrary to the Government’s assertion, there is nothing normal about attaching a non-disclosure clause in a financial settlement between a Government ministry as employer, and an aggrieved employee. If there is precedent for the Government’s agreement to such condition in the taxpayer-funded $150,000 settlement with the female employee who sued the Ministry of Sport, then the public would certainly want to know. Further, if the matter involves ministerial indiscretion of a sexual nature, as is being widely alleged, then the Government would stand accused of using public funds as hush money to cover up private wrongdoing in public office.
In this day and age, when accountability and transparency in the use of public funds are high on the list of democratic indicators, the Government should not have even considered any demand for such secrecy. And yet, in Parliament on Thursday, Minister Stuart Young defended it as normal, even routine.
Indeed, while it may be normal between private individuals or among companies in the private sector, the standard for disclosure is different in the public sector where accountability and transparency are attached to the use of public money. In today’s world, even major business contracts between governments and multinational companies, once the preserve of secrecy clauses designed to protect specially-negotiated conditions, are under challenge on the grounds of the public’s right to be informed on matters involving public funds.
Many worrying questions arise from this settlement and its terms: Why would the Government demand or agree to a request for non-disclosure? What wrong has the Ministry of Sport committed in relation to this employee that is worth $150,000 of taxpayer funds in compensation? Why was this matter settled instead of being allowed to go to the Industrial Court where it was already scheduled to be heard? Which party requested a non-disclosure clause and why? On this last score, it is hard to accept that the request for non-disclosure would come from an employee who was willing to have her case heard by the Industrial Court.
This matter will not be waved away. As the minister leading the Government’s charge against corruption, Minister Young, of all people, should stand behind the public interest demand for accountability and transparency.
In a society as small as Trinidad, where information flows powerfully through the underground with even more devastating consequences than on the surface, the value of a non-disclosure agreement is highly doubtful, especially in the political world. People will talk and tell what they know. In such circumstances, the government does itself no good by engaging in what is bound to be construed as a cover-up.
With allegations of sexual harassment swirling over his head in this matter, Minister Darryl Smith has been at pains to point out that it was the Ministry of Sport and not him that was sued by the employee whom he identified as “Ms Munroe”, his former assistant. This point only raises more questions and suggests there may be more in the mortar than the pestle.
A cover-up will only push all parties deeper into the hole. The only way out is to come clean.