Justin Simon QC, a former attorney general, has declared that the Integrity Commission should stop “passing the buck” and investigate the corruption allegations against Member of Parliament (MP) Asot Michael.
Simon said that the commission, despite its shifting stance on the matter, has the legal power to investigate alleged corruption without someone actually filing a complaint.
He made the statement on Monday during an interview on OBSERVER Radio’s Voice of People and in the wake of the latest announcement from Chairman of Commission Radford “Raddy” Hill.
In a release on Saturday, Hill announced that having received advice from newly retained legal counsel, the commission is convinced that it cannot investigate corruption allegations in the absence of a complaint.
It is the second time, in just over a week, that the Commission has reversed its position. It has now come full circle to its original, longstanding policy that there can be no investigation without a complaint.
However, Simon who was attorney general when the Integrity in Public Life Act was drafted and passed in 2004 said, “Outside of a complaint being made the Act gives the commission the power to conduct its own investigation without a complaint.”
He added that Hill and others were merely “passing the buck” by waiting for a member of the public to file a complaint. The allegations against Michael have made headlines across the Caribbean and in the United Kingdom where he was arrested in October 2017 while law enforcement was investigating him.
It is now known that he is alleged to have demanded bribes from British billionaire Peter Virdee in or around 2016, while he, Michael was minister of energy and Virdee was Chairman of PV Energy Limited, a UK-based renewable energy firm.
Transcripts of taped conversations in which Michael, Virdee, and another man who was a convicted fraudster discussed illicit payments and gifts due to Michael for his part in successfully negotiating projects surfaced in May in documents of the United Kingdom’s (UK) High Court.
“We know there were investigations in England and Germany. How many people in Antigua would have the ability to get documentary evidence to initiate the complaint? You? Me?” Simon posited before adding, “It is the Integrity Commission which is best placed to do that.”
The decisive issue is the interpretation of Section 12(1) of the Integrity in Public Life Act, which states the functions of the commission.
Subsection 12 (1)(b) states that a function of the commission is “to receive and investigate complaints regarding noncompliance with or contravention of any provisions of this Act or the Prevention of Corruption Act, 2004.”
Sub-section 12(1)(d) then states that a function of the commission is “to conduct an investigation into any offence of corruption under the Prevention of Corruption Act, 2004 if it is satisfied that there are grounds for an investigation.”
Since 2017, the argument put forward by Hill, the commission’s chair, has been that subsection 12(1) (d) did not give the commission the independent power to investigate corruption in the absence of a complaint but that it only complemented section 12(1)(b) which stipulates that the commission is to receive and investigate such complaints.
But on June 15, after being subjected to repeated criticism over the commission’s inaction on the Michael corruption allegations, Hill did an about-face and released a statement saying “the commissioners have met and discussed the matter…and have determined that there are grounds for an investigation under section 12(1)(d) of the Integrity in Public Life Act.”
Yet in the same June 15 statement, the chairman provided a reason as to why still, nothing could be done, adding that the commission “does not have the staff or resources to mount such an investigation.” He said the body would make a request to the government for funding and assistance.
No sooner had Gaston Browne, Prime Minister declared the government’s readiness to finance the work of the commission, Hill dispatched a second release on Saturday, June 23 saying that the commission no longer believed it could investigate without a complaint.
In the second release, Hill stated that it was “important” for the two contentious provisions, subsection 12(1)(b) and subsection 12(1)(d) of the Integrity in Public Life Act to “be read together and in context.” He informed the public that an unnamed legal counsel told the commission it “cannot determine that there are grounds for an investigation in a vacuum but only in the presence of a complaint.”
Simon has rejected the interpretation and challenged the commission to reveal who rendered it.
“Let us have full disclosure and not a situation where it’s you say, I say, but nobody knows who is the you or the I,” he said.
The Integrity Commission was introduced into law in 2004 under the Baldwin Spencer administration but remains a largely untested body. Hill, appointed by Sir Rodney Williams, Governor General, has been routinely criticised by members of the main opposition United Progressive Party (UPP) who believe he is partial toward the administration of Gaston Browne and reluctant to investigate its members.
Two Saturdays ago, Browne while pledging support to the commission, publicly referred to Hill as “Comrade Raddy.” “Comrade” is the term Antigua Barbuda Labour Party (ABLP) members often use to refer to each other and to show solidarity.