Clear policy needed to address conflict of interest- Transparency body

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With allegations of conflict of interest being levelled against two Government Ministers recently, the Transparency Institute of Guyana is calling for the establishment of a clear policy to avoid recurrences.

“For us to make progress in relation to transparency and corruption perception, it is important that we address the issues that arise decisively and in ways that close opportunities for recurrence,” the body said in a statement calling out Minister of Public Telecommunications, Cathy Hughes and former Minister with responsibility for housing, Valerie Patterson-Yearwood.

Both Ministers were flagged for having connections with private companies which were awarded contracts by the Government to complete works.

“Establishing a clear policy on specific actions that should be taken by ministers and other public officials who have firms that compete for local business especially with the government would enhance our attempts to address conflict of interest in government,” TIGI said.

The Government in 2017 gazetted a revised Code of Conduct to deal with such issues, however, that document is “weak” according to the transparency body as it fails to articulate any specific penalties for breaches and it should be strengthened.

The Revised Code of Conduct for Public Officers states in Article 4 (3) that “A person in public life shall – (c) refuse or relinquish any outside employment, shareholdings or directorships which creates or is likely to create a conflict of interest.”

This is the only approach available in the document but TIGI said it should not be since it leaves dealing with the issue to the discretion of the person involved.

Article 4 (1) (b) of the code provides for seeking guidance from the Integrity Commission on what steps to take and this is separate from declaring interest in a firm.

In the case of Minister Hughes, it was disclosed that a company which she owns, Videomega Productions, was awarded contracts by the Department of Environment valuing close to $1M.

The Minister claims that she was unaware of the contract until it was disclosed by the political Opposition as she relinquished all control of the company after assuming office in 2015.

It is unclear whether the Minister sought advice from the Integrity Commission to deal with the matter.

Minister of Public Telecommunications Cathy Hughes

In an interview with the media subsequently, Hughes declared that she is not in agreement with closing her company after assuming office as this would mean firing over 20 staff members.

However, the Transparency body stated that indicating ignorance about a contract award is “not enough.’

TIGI explained that even when a minister, who owns a firm, has not acted directly on an existing conflict of interest, “there is the possibility that favouritism can be shown to his/her firm due to the known association with the government.”

The Department of Energy has indicated that there was no impropriety in the award of the contract but failed to release information on the procurement process.

Information on the procurement process involved is needed to strengthen public confidence, TIGI noted.

In relation to the situation at the Ministry of Housing, a contract was awarded to the husband of Minister Patterson-Yearwood at the Central Housing and Planning Authority (CH&PA) –an agency for which she was directly responsible.

Minister Patterson-Yearwood with her husband, Godfrey Yearwood and President David Granger on their wedding day. [Ministry of the Presidency photo]
Patterson-Yearwood said she had nothing to do with the award of the contract by the agency since this is done by the Board of Directors.

The transparency body has since called for the contract to be reviewed.

Questions have also been raised about whether the two were married at the time of the award of the contract but the TIGI said that is of no importance since there is no way to ascertain that they were not in a relationship at the time.

The Minister was on Thursday moved to head Rural Affairs at the Ministry of Agriculture.

“Conflict of interest is a huge problem in Guyana,” TIGI noted.

“It should span the whole spectrum of situations where an influential official goes out of his/her way to find a friend to fill a position in violation of the minimum requirements for appointment to that position, to the obvious one where the recruit emerges as one in an officially recognized relationship such as husband and wife.”

TIGI said the cases provide Guyanese with an opportunity for reflection on the companies that will be generated in the petroleum economy and on whether our elected leaders will have the consciousness of history to take steps to safeguard the interest of the Guyanese workforce.

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