|The Hon. Prime Minister, Kamla Persad Bissessar
From the first time I heard that the Hon. PM's "free lodging" at the Gopaul's was being interpreted as a "fee, gift or personal benefit" under section 27 (1) of the Integrity in Public Life Act 2000 as amended, I intuitively thought it an uncomfortable interpretation but I could not put my finger on exactly why it was so. It was certainly a benefit received and so I understand the readiness to conclude that it must be covered under the section dealing with the prohibition and declaration of gifts by public officials. I held my tongue on the topic ( even though as most of you know I am most inclined to comment on topics of this sort) and pondered a little. Why was I uncomfortable with this interpretation? Why did it seem like forcing a square peg into a round hole to me?
Let us look at section 27 closely :
"27. (1) A person to whom this Part applies shall not accept a fee, gift or personal benefit, except compensation authorized by law, that is connected directly or indirectly with the performance of the duties of his office.
(2) Subsection (1) does not apply to a gift or personal benefit that is received as an incident of the protocol or social obligations that normally accompany the responsibilities of office.
(3) Where a gift or personal benefit referred to in subsection (2) exceeds five thousand dollars in value or where the total value received directly or indirectly from one source in any twelve-month period exceeds five thousand dollars, a person in public life shall file with his declaration, a statement indicating the nature of the gift or benefit, its source and the circumstances under which it was given or accepted.
(4) For the purposes of this section, the amount of a gift comprising property, other than money, shall be deemed to be an amount equal to the value of the property.”
If we were to look at 27 it would appear that there is not there created an absolute bar to the receipt of any gift whatsoever. Further from a consideration of the section in its entirety it is clear that there are distinctions made between categories of gifts etc. Let us break it down. From my reading of it there are at least four potential categories of gifts :
Gift Category 1
Defined by section 27 (1) - those fees, gifts, personal benefits, not authorized by law, that are connected directly or indirectly with the performance of one's duties of office. -Prohibited
Gift Category 2
Defined by section 27 (2) - those gifts/benefits received as an incident of the protocol or social obligations that normally accompany the responsibilities of office (under the value of 5000TT) - Permitted
Gift Category 3
Defined by section 27 (3) - those gifts/benefits received as an incident of the protocol or social obligations that normally accompany the responsibilities of office (over the value of 5000TT) - To be declared
Gift Category 4
Not defined by the section but nonetheless must exist - those fees, gifts, personal benefits received by public officials which are NOT connected directly or indirectly with the performance of one' duties of office. - Not Covered by the Act
It is of course category 4 which causes the most concern but given the manner in which the section 27 is drafted - it must exist. Section 27 (1) breaks down the elements which one must find in the type of fee, gift or benefit which is prohibited eg.
1. Must be a Fee, gift or personal benefit
2. Must not be authorized by the law (wages, salaries, benefits or perks of office)
3. Must be connected directly or indirectly to the performance of one's duties of office.
The Gift of Free Lodging
In the instant situation relating to the benefit of "free lodging", whilst elements 1 and 2 are made out, it is questionable whether element 3 is made out. There are two sub elements to 3 which are (a) must be connected directly or indirectly and (b) to the performance of one's duties of office.
Taking the latter sub element first, the reference in s.27(1) (as amended) to “the duties of office” would seem to be a reference to public duties, ie duties which are an incident of the holding of a public office. Section 23 provides that Part IV of the Act applies to “a person in public life and to all persons exercising public functions”. Such persons are defined in section 2 and include all persons holding office under the Public Service. “Public functions” is a term not defined in the Act but “persons exercising public functions” is defined in s.2 to include, inter alia, the Judicial, Police and Teaching services. Sections 24 to 27 are concerned with the use and misuse of office. This must, ex hypothesi, mean ‘public’ office. Similarly, the reference in s.24(1) to the performance of functions must be a reference to ‘public’ functions.
S.24(1)(a) makes express reference to the exercise of “public duty”. The term is not defined. However, it must necessarily encompass duties which are an incident of the public office and, possibly, which are owed to the public. A public duty may, in principle, be distinct from a ‘private’ duty, which may, eg, include those duties arising by way of contract of employment.
Accordingly, holding a public office may, in principle, give rise to both public and private duties. So a teacher’s duties might include, eg, one to mark exam papers impartially which could properly be characterized as a public duty; and a duty to work the hours stipulated in her contract, which is perhaps more readily categorized as a private duty.
If this public/private distinction is in principle valid, then one can interpret s.27(1) as being concerned with matters “connected directly or indirectly with the performance of the [public] duties of his office”.
Leaving aside, for one moment, the meaning of “connected directly or indirectly”, one can interpret s.27(1) as, therefore, being concerned with the relationship between the acceptance of a fee, gift or personal benefit and the performance of a public duty which is an incident of the holding of a public office.
Considering the first sub element (a) “Connected” is defined in Collins English Dictionary as meaning “joined or linked together”. Using this definition, the term is suggestive of there being a link or relationship between said acceptance and said performance. That is to say that the acceptance of the benefit (and presumably also its offering) is referable to the performance of the public duty, or is linked to the performance of the public duty.
It can be seen that s.27 distinguishes between benefits connected directly or indirectly with the performance of the duties of office (s.27(1)) and benefits “received as an incident of the protocol or social obligations that normally accompany the responsibilities of office” (s.27(2)). As explained above, this is not an exhaustive characterization of all benefits that a holder of public office could receive. Thus, by way of example, a birthday present from a family member would not fall under either category of benefit identified in s.27(1) or (2). The gift does not fall within s.27(1) because it is not connected with the performance of the duties of office. It does not fall within s.27(2) because it was not received as an incident of the protocol or social obligations that normally accompany the responsibilities of office, and therefore would not fall within s.27(3) either, even if its value exceeded TT5,000. Let us refer to this type of gift/benefit as the Category 4 gift outlined above.
Similarly, the gift of free lodging from a friend without any evidence of a "connection directly or indirectly" with the performance of a public duty (for example the public duty to award a contract fairly and impartially) would not therefore appear to infringe section 27 (1). It would also not infringe section 27 (2) as it is not a gift given as an incident of protocol or social obligation accompanying the office and neither is it declarable under section 27 (3).
On the above interpretation of the Act, it follows that, the mere fact that a fee, gift or benefit may be convenient to the performance of a public duty does not by itself establish the connectivity required by section 27(1).
A Note on the Integrity in Public Life Act
Ok so I understand the discomfort with this.. it may be readily accepted that the Act is not the best example of parliamentary draftsmanship. Party financiers who are friends can give gifts of value and once no evidence can be adduced showing a connection with the performance of a public duty there is no infringement. I am uncertain whether this was the intention of the framers. Perhaps a simpler expression of the rules would be
1. Create an absolute bar on all gifts received in connection with the performance of duties of office (as is done by section 27 (1) as amended).
2. However, require full disclosure of ALL gifts received over the value of 5000TT so that in the event of an allegation being made there should be appropriate records to assist with the investigation. Our section 27 (3) requires only the declaration of gifts over 5000TT which are received as an incident of protocol or social obligation relating to the public office, thereby creating a fairly large loophole relative to Category 4 gifts.
A Note on the NP Procurement Process
All of this to say, I am not defending the NP procurement process nor am I saying that the Hon. PM did or did not interfere and or influence the process. All I am saying, is
(1) the mere fact of the acceptance of the gift/benefit of free lodging by the Hon. PM does not of itself establish a breach of section 27 (1) and
(2) the award by an SOE of a contract to the donor of the said gift/benefit of free lodging, is not, without more, sufficient to support an allegation of impropriety.
This notwithstanding, there may be evidence which is adduced later on pointing to unfairness of procedure, breaches of duties to award the contract as tendered, to disqualify non compliant bids etc, and there may even be evidence elicited relating to political interference and influence over the award. In such circumstances, it may be that the Hon.PM or other public officials may have a case to answer.