Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Conflict of Interest in High Office?

By Marcus M. Mottley, Ph.D.

According to the online version of the Antigua Sun (December 7th, 2005), Asot Michael, Member of Parliament for St. Peter, “launched a fiery attack on the Hadeed family, during the debate on the 2006 budget. According to the Antigua Sun, Michael charged that “there is a blatant conflict of interest” for government to elevate a businessman to senior political office "while his business is still doing business with the government.”

That reported charge by Asot Michael gave me great pause. It does not matter what I think of Asot Michael and his political exploits or activities in the past. It does not matter what I think of Asot Michael and his current political woes with his own party. It does not matter what I think of Asot Michael – the man or the politician. His charge that “there is a blatant conflict of interest for government to elevate a businessman to senior political office while his business is still doing business with the government” is at least worthy of some thought.

Over the last quarter century, the former Antigua Labour Party (ALP) Administration, was constantly bombarded with charges of corruption and unethical ‘wheelings and dealings’. (Indeed, Asot Michael himself was at the center of some of these charges.) Over those years, the United Progressive Party (UPP) was front and center along with the media in challenging the ALP Government on each and every questionable deal that came to light. They took a principled and ethical stance against corruption in high office, against wheelings and dealings, and indeed… against any negotiations or agreements that, to them, had the appearance of illegality or impropriety.

Now that the UPP forms the Government, much is expected of them… not the least of which is that they embrace the same principled and ethical stances that they so ardently and passionately represented in their very public criticisms of the then ALP Government. Much is expected of them… to avoid not only wrong doing… but the appearance of illegality and impropriety in their high offices.

I would argue, then, that we look carefully at Asot Michael’s posturing in the House – whether it represented a personal vendetta against the Hadeed family… whether it represented a political vendetta, or whether it represented the ruminations of a man who had finally been touched by Grace. Whatever it represented, that reported statement “there is a blatant conflict of interest for government to elevate a businessman to senior political office while his business is still doing business with the government” needs to be seriously examined.

Questions need to be asked… and answered.

  • Does Mr. Hadeed recuse himself from Cabinet discussions on matters that impact the various business sectors in which his companies are involved?

  • More to the point… Does Mr. Hadeed recuse himself… or is he asked to recuse himself from discussions having to do with APUA and electricity generation, importation of cars (new or used), import taxes for businesses, etc?

  • Within the context of Cabinet decision-making, is Mr. Hadeed allowed to vote on, or discuss, or influence decisions on matters that impact his business interests?

  • Does Mr. Hadeed advise the members of Cabinet on matters that impact their decisions on matters pertinent to his business interests?

Please remember, that as a member of Cabinet – and indeed, both the Parliament and the Senate, Mr. Hadeed is imbued with extraordinary influence. His influence, as extraordinary as it is, must serve not his family business interests, but the interests of the Antiguan and Barbudan electorate.

Electorate? There-in and here-in lies the rub… he is not an elected official… he is an appointed official. He was not elevated to high office by the people for the enhancement of their interests. He was elevated by the political directorate of the UPP. Of course, it is my belief that the UPP Directorate felt that they could benefit from his vast business experience. But they ought to have instituted some rules and regulations governing the mechanics of his contributions while in such high office.

What are some of those rules? Here are at least two:

  1. That he should recuse himself from discussions on matters that impact the business sectors in which his companies are involved – including matters dealing with APUA.

  2. That, within Cabinet, he should not vote on such matters when decisions were being made. (And indeed, he should take a principled stance not to discuss or vote on such matters in either Parliament or the Senate.)

I am wondering what great benefit might the UPP Directorate have seen or expected in elevating Mr. Hadeed to such high offices? Did they need his advice and wise counsel on matters in which he is an expert? Could they not have offered him a more focused role in an advisory capacity? Or was his elevation due to something else… like rewarding him for his financial, consulting or other contribution during the phases of the last election?

Let me be quick to say, that one need not question, analyze or even try to understand Mr. Hadeed’s motivation to seek or serve in high official positions… that is not the question. Which business person would not seek such influence? Be careful of throwing the first stone. No… we ought not to question his motives for seeking or accepting such appointments.

It is not Mr. Hadeed who we should question. It is his appointers and UPP-lifters whom we must ask questions of.

The question is this: Is Mr. Hadeed being allowed to unduly influence and impact the decisions that are made at the highest levels of Government in our nation… specifically with regard to the decisions that impact the businesses in which he is involved? Here is another question: Does his presence in Cabinet give him an unfair advantage over his business competitors who are not privy to the detailed discussions on business issues which could seriously impact them?

If the answers are yes… then we must bear in mind that such influence can be seen and interpreted, and have the appearance of, and does carry the real possibility of being, according to Asot Michael, “A conflict of interest” for a businessman elevated to “senior political office” while his business is currently “doing business” with the same government that he is an integral part of. Not only does it jaundice his business dealings with the government (of which he is a part), but for it could seriously damage the government’s credibility with both large and small business owners. Furthermore, if it is perceived that he utilizes the advantageous position of his “senior political office”, this could undermine and dampen the willingness of local and foreign entrepreneurs who want to invest in Antigua & Barbuda in those particular areas of business in which his companies participate.

By the way, aren’t issues of impropriety and conflict of interest the crux of the charges that are being brought in court against some individuals who held “senior political office” within the former administration?