The Integrity Commission is moving to take persons in public life who fail to declare their assets to the courts and is now seeking advice from the Director of Public Prosecutions on how to file enforcement action.
This was the word from Integrity Commission chairman, Professor Rajendra Ramlogan, as he defended the commission against criticism from some sectors of society that it was toothless, insisting that it was making a marked effort to ensure compliance.
However, he is admitting that there are weaknesses in the governing legislation that need to be addressed.
Even so, the commission has already filed ex parte action against defaulters who are still not up to date and is seeking legal guidance on these matters.
In a sit-down interview with Guardian Media, Professor Ramlogan said, “If you don’t comply with the ex parte action, we could seek enforcement in the Magistrates’ Court, which includes a fine and imprisonment, so there is no more teeth you need there.” Despite having these measures at its disposal, no Integrity Commission has ever gotten that far despite years of defaults. But Ramlogan is hoping that under his watch, the Integrity Commission will become the trendsetter with their actions.
“We have only now written to the DPP asking for guidance in how to commence enforcement action, because although we get ex-parte actions and the court has ordered you to file your declaration, there are people who would not comply with that either and we have had people who have not complied, so we have to go to the next step,” Ramlogan said.
He also revealed that the commission has just appointed three new compliance analysts with accounting and economics training to assist in dealing with the assessment of declarations and statements of registrable interests. These are mainly young university graduates with passion.
Regarding investigations, right now, the commission also has access to retired police officers to assist with investigations, but Ramlogan said people with more accounting knowledge and background are needed for their drive to thoroughly investigate matters before them.
“We need to change the skill set of the people involved in investigation. You really need people with a little more forensic skills,” he said.
Ramlogan said while the police were able to bring their expertise to the investigations, some still require extensive knowledge of accounting documents.
“Just as we speak, three new people have come on board,” he said.
“One is quite experienced in accounting matters, while the other two are young university graduates in accounting with interest in forensic accounting. It is hoped that these new staff members will bring fresh perspective and vigour to the investigations process to complement the experience of our current investigators.”
Ramlogan is also standing behind the recent publication of the names of people in public life who had failed to declare their income, assets and liabilities. The list of 675 defaulters was published two weeks ago and created a stir among politicians and others serving in public positions.
“The commission is satisfied with the accuracy and integrity of the process we employed,” Ramlogan said.
At the time of publishing the list, the deputy political leader of Tobago’s Progressive Democratic Patriots (PDP) Farley Augustine claimed that he had been trying to get in touch with the Integrity Commission for weeks. He also questioned why, especially during a period when COVID-19 protocols were creating delays in conducting administrative processes physically, he could not upload his declaration through an online system. Other officials, however, said that they were up to date with their declarations and were surprised their names had appeared.
Ramlogan was sworn in as chairman of the Integrity Commission in January 2021 and admitted he met several challenges with the digitisation of the commission’s operations. He said under two former chairmen in 2013 and 2016, there was confirmation that online submissions would be allowed, and he thought it was already in place until he took the chair.
“The complaint about the online declarations and so on, yes that is a matter of concern. And it is fact that we do not permit the filing of online declarations and therefore, that has created challenges and concerns for some people,” he said.
In 2016, a consultancy was commissioned and produced an extensive report that was “signed off”’ on in 2016.
“I simply do not know what happened until 2021,” he said.
He said the process is marred by bureaucracy but it was moving forward. While the official submissions of declarations digitally are still being finalised, the commission has introduced an interim measure that will allow for online filing of declarations by the end of this week.
Meanwhile, the budget allocations for the Integrity Commission moved from over $20 million in 2016 to just $8.3 million for the next financial cycle. These budgetary cuts have constrained the commission’s ability to do its job. Ramlogan said even attempting to go after the defaulters is expensive and the limited budget makes it harder.
“We have approximately 1,200 people in public life. So even to review 1,200 declarations, if everyone filed, we actually only had four people in the department to check 1,200 people,” he said.
Ramlogan is also defending the independence of the commission, saying there has been no attempt to politically influence him during his tenure.
Despite Ramlogan’s attempt to keep the Integrity Commission out of politics, the institution was brought into the political domain when Opposition leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar questioned why Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi had sold his Porsche in 2016 and did not disclose that sale to the commission until this year.
At the time, the AG said that he would be calling on the commission to explain how Persad-Bissessar got hold of confidential information.
According to Ramlogan, the matter is now before them, so nothing can be said on this matter. However, he said there are two forms that persons in public life fill out. Form A is confidential, he said, while Form B forms part of a Register of Statements of Registrable interest and is available to the public.
The commission is also seeking to amend its governing legislation to give it the power to go to third parties to verify submissions.
“Right now, we do not have the power to verify with third parties, so we cannot compel a third party to verify information that you have given to us and we would like that power,” he said.
“There is a weakness in our legislation that we would like to actually compel third parties to come and give evidence so we can properly investigate a matter.
“We have already reviewed it this year. The commission is meeting at the end of this month to review the recommendations and we expect that a draft amended act be submitted to Cabinet, we expect it to be done at the end of this year.”
He admitted that a lot of their work is also stymied because the existing system depends a lot on the cooperation of external parties and bodies.
“So, unless there is some compulsion that says you have to talk to us, then we end up spending a lot of years meandering, not being able to get information,” Ramlogan said.
Ramlogan emphasised that this. the 17th commission, has been steadfast and unified in its approach to carrying out its statutory mandate and its decisions are built on consensus. He said the majority of the staff of the commission are solidly behind the direction it is taking, and the commission looks forward to contributing to the promotion of good governance in Trinidad and Tobago.