Transparency advocate: ‘Corruption kills’

The real impact of corrupt practices within public and private sectors around the world was laid bare at a recent conference hosted by the University College of the Cayman Islands.   

Transparency International Chairwoman Huguette Labelle opened the UCCI forum by painting a bleak picture of starvation, illness and death, all blamed on corrupt acts.  

A recent Transparency International survey found a worldwide average of about one in four people who had paid some form of bribe to access “essential services” within their own countries. In some countries, it is three people out of four, she says.  

Labelle says payment for basic services, $50 here, $100 there, is often referred to as “petty corruption,” but she doesn’t care for that term.  

“If the annual income of your family is US$600 and you have to pay 40 percent of that in bribes to access essential services, that’s not petty, that’s big,” Labelle says.  

A World Health Organization survey published recently indicated some 700,000 people died worldwide of malaria and tuberculosis because those illnesses were treated with counterfeit medications supplied by corrupt entities or governments looking to cut corners.  

“Corruption is not just a question of money,” she says. “Corruption kills. It kills if a building crumbles because inspectors looked the other way when they were bribed. It keeps poor people poor, creates distrust of [a country’s] leaders and keeps investors away.”  

Happily, the Cayman Islands has not experienced the desperate problems with corruption and bribery seen in other parts of the world, Labelle says. However, the Transparency International chairwoman did note at least a couple of issues that were a bit closer to Cayman’s proverbial heart.  

Disclosures  

Labelle highlighted disclosures of politicians’ personal and family interests and reform of campaign finance laws as two important areas in the international fight against corruption. 

“It is essential…that parliamentarians have a code of conduct to set the standards to what is permissible and what is not, and that they have as well public disclosure of their assets and those of their immediate family,” Labelle told a crowd of hundreds gathered at Sir Vassel Johnson Hall on the UCCI campus. “Family does matter, without any question.”  

Labelle gave some examples in different countries, which she did not identify, where questionable financial arrangements existed between national leaders and close relatives. She made reference to certain unnamed countries where shenanigans were apparent. 

“The president of [the unnamed] country’s two sons – one 10 and one 12 years old – each were the owners of a multimillion-dollar condo in Abu Dhabi,” she says. 

In other cases, ministers have placed their financial interests in blind trusts that were directed by their spouses or children. “That’s not quite blind in most people’s views,” Labelle says.  

Premier Alden McLaughlin, who preceded Labelle in speaking to the UCCI anti-corruption conference, said last year that the Cayman Islands Cabinet would soon be adopting a code of conduct for its members. In addition, the local government recently passed a Standards in Public Life Law requiring a number of different disclosures from politicians and senior civil servants to be made by July of this year.  

According to section 12 of the new law: “In making a declaration required [under the law], a person in public life shall include, in relation to himself and any connected person, details relating to – [subsection 1e] any land, whether beneficial or otherwise.”  

The legislation forms part of a wholesale redraft of Cayman’s public standards policies, broadly expanding the areas that local politicians and higher-ranking civil servants must make public in the territory’s register of interests.  

It has presented an issue for Premier McLaughlin and Works Minister Kurt Tibbetts, who recently confirmed that close family members own land in the area of the Mastic Reserve on Grand Cayman. Those areas are located along the path of a planned road that is slated to service the proposed Ironwood golf and resort development in the center of the island.  

McLaughlin told the conference that change would come to views on corruption in the Caribbean and in the world eventually, but that the change would be slow and would require massive effort to overcome current social norms.  

“We’ve been at such a point for so long that all politicians are expected to be corrupt,” McLaughlin said. “You reach the conclusion that a good politician…is someone who ‘teefs’ (sic) and shares with other people. It is what so many people believe.”  

Political campaigns  

Labelle says one of the largest builders of distrust among the public and political parties has to do with campaign finance. “All expenses should be made public during the election,” she says.  

Some countries, including Labelle’s native Canada, have abolished the ability of any organizations such as private businesses or labor unions, from contributing to political parties. The Canadian limit on political party contributions from individuals is $1,200, with some proposals seeking to raise that to $1,500 per person.  

“I’m not suggesting it has to be like this everywhere, but it does, I think, create some greater trust,” she said.  

That path has been tried in the Turks and Caicos Islands and so far, according to Integrity Commission Director Eugene Oluone, the campaign spending limits have worked out.  

During the eastern Caribbean island chain’s most recent elections in late 2012, the British overseas territory had a donation limit of US$30,000 for companies or individuals wishing to give to candidates. Political parties also had spending limits of US$30,000 per district.  

Candidates running in at-large seats island-wide could not spend more than US$40,000, and political party leaders were limited to US$100,000. Overall, the total spending was not to exceed US$600,000, Oluone says.  

While he could not say precisely how much had been spent in previous campaigns, Oluone estimates that “you are looking at millions.” In the end, just more than $500,000 was given in total political donations for the 2012 election, he says.  

“[Campaign spending limits] will go a long way in curbing buying of votes, if you like,” he says. “If little Turks and Caicos can regulate political parties, then it can happen in the big countries.”  

For Professor Trevor Munroe of the University of the West Indies, disclosure of donations is more important than limiting the amount of those contributions. Mr. Munroe discussed the subject during a late-2012 conference at UCCI.  

“Any of us can know who were the biggest contributors in the third quarter of 2012 to the British Labour party … but none of us here in a parliamentary democratic system can know who is paying the piper and thereby well positioned to call the tune,” Professor Munroe said. “Not in Jamaica, not in Trinidad, not in Barbados, not in Guyana, and, of course, not in Cayman Islands.”  

At the moment, Cayman has no upper limit on political contributions made to either individual candidates or political parties.  

Also of some surprise to many in attendance at the 2012 lecture, was when Munroe pointed out that most Caribbean countries have laws against vote-buying.  

“This happens almost as if it’s a matter of course … and what [non-enforcement] does is bring the law into disrepute,” Professor Munroe said.  

 

Cayman rules   

The Elections Law (2004 Revision) does provide an expenditure limit that candidates must stay within. The limit applies to candidates from the time they receive official nomination to the day of the general election – usually about six weeks. Candidates belonging to political parties can legally spend only $30,000 within that time; independent candidates may spend up to $35,000 between the time of their nomination and Election Day.  

All candidates are required to report the total amount of their expenditures within that time period to the elections supervisor’s office, where those records are kept on file for a year after the votes are counted.  

Any candidate accepting a donation greater than $5,000 must identify the source of that donation to the supervisor. The name and address of any person who contributes more than $10,000 to a candidate or party must also be given to the supervisor’s office.  

Candidates and parties are not required to document any donations or expenditures that occur outside of the nomination period. In other words, if someone receives or spends $200,000 on a campaign prior to their official nomination as a candidate, that would not violate spending limits.  

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Huguette Labelle

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