Recently, the media reported that the husband of the Housing Minister received contracts from the Central Housing and Planning Authority (CH&PA) to construct houses on behalf of the Ministry. Immediately following that astonishing revelation, the question of conflict of interest surfaced, given the relationship between the Minister and beneficiary of the contracts.
This issue continues to feature prominently throughout the media landscape and significantly, the conflict of interest was also noted by the Head of the CH&PA. Often, reports about the awarding and signing of Government contracts are carried in the media assumedly to show that the Government is implementing development projects for the benefit of citizens. Some are even announced at post-Cabinet media briefings.
Therefore, nothing should have stopped the public from being notified about the contracts awarded to the Minister’s husband at the time of signing. That said, it begs the question as to why this information wasn’t this made public before. From all indications, the matter was brought to the fore during a press conference by the Leader of the Opposition, Bharrat Jagdeo sometime last week. This begs another question; had he not offered related information; would the public have been informed at some point or at all?
In such circumstances when information seems to be withheld, there is a tendency to believe there was probably something sinister necessitating it remaining under wraps. Given what is now known, these contracts in question, would have raised the same contentions as it is now. Hence, that may have been the deciding factor to not have the usual media engagement at the time of awarding.
Some may even ask what was there to hide when taxpayers’ monies are being used, supposedly for their benefit. That answer is now in the open. One can also argue why should any competent and capable contractor be barred from the process even if a relative is part of the decision-making entity. Again, the answer is the obvious and contentious conflict of interest.
There is the thought that in such instances, the relative could recuse his/herself from the process and the public immediately informed. This is from the standpoint of trying to remove suspicion of a conflict of interest. There is no report of that being done in the case in question, and even if it was, there may also be no avoidance of a perception of a conflict of interest.
This brings into question the CH&PA’s policy on the awarding of contracts in such circumstances. Some entities have a clear policy that staff and family members are not allowed to participate in some or even all promotional activities they may undertake. In that context, does the CH&PA has a policy that disallows relatives of officials from being awarded contracts?
That would be useful to know; if it does, then the contract in question is a breach; if it doesn’t, then an opportunity now arises to consider and implement. One report indicated that the head of the CH&PA suggests that the awards process needs reviewing. Yet another report stated that the Minister blames the CH&PA for the contract awarding since that agency is directly responsible. The Minister was emphatic that she is not engaged in the issuance of contracts. Some may see that as a poor defence and clearly putting her own agency under the bus.
That said, there are a number of other questions which can be asked, including, whether the Minister was unaware of the contract being awarded to her husband. While it is not impossible, it seems highly improbable. This incident is another of many that stacks upon accusations of cronyism and nepotism by the Government. On the surface, it may not be mere accusations.
Sometime ago, a senior official of this Government unashamedly defended preferential treatment towards someone who financed his party’s campaign and who also donated a posh office building. Similarly, a drug-bond contract, to the tune of millions of taxpayers’ dollars, was awarded, reportedly, to someone who allegedly contributed to funding of the campaign.
Since May 2015, there have been numerous reports of many party affiliates and relatives and friends of officials who have been given jobs at the expense of qualified staff and candidates. Sidelining to allegedly facilitate the political plants seems to be prevalent within the Public Sector now. The appointments of the Chairman of GECOM and its Deputy Chief Elections Officer, have also been viewed in that context.
Why is this relevant to the issue of the contract award to the husband of the Housing Ministry? The answer lies in confidence and trust. Prior to and on the assumption of office the current Government not only accused its predecessor, the People’s Progressive Party, of cronyism and nepotism, but boasted of flushing it out.
From its own actions and the many accusation made against it since May 2015, the Government may have encouraged and entrenched the said practice. For many Guyanese, it’s not a perception. For them, the loss of trust and confidence in the Government is a stark reality. The contract in question, would have fortified that sentiment. The real question is; what would the President do? Afterall, he led the campaign to stop such practices like nepotism.