On assuming office, all ministers should relinquish ownership of businesses to avoid potential conflicts of interest, according to Working People’s Alliance (WPA) executive Dr. David Hinds said.
“You cannot successfully serve two masters in small political economies like ours,” Hinds yesterday told Stabroek News in the wake of the recent disclosure that a company owned by Public Telecommunications Minister Cathy Hughes was awarded a contract by the Department of Energy (DoE).
“There is always going to be these problems of conflict of interest when business people become political and government leaders. It’s inevitable, even when you have codes of conduct,” he added, while arguing that Hughes should have known that she should relinquish ownership of her company since her APNU+AFC coalition campaigned on being held to a higher standard.
Hughes, who was accused of impropriety by the opposition, has since said that she has not been involved in the “day to day” running of the company, Videomega Productions, since assuming office in 2015. She also said she had been unaware of the award of the contract prior to it being made public by PPP/C Chief Whip Gail Teixeira and party supporter Edward Layne on the same day.
Though the company’s website still lists Hughes as Managing Director and Executive Producer, she explained in a statement that in May 2015, upon assuming the role of Minister of Tourism, she “relinquished any involvement in the day to day running of Videomega Productions.”
She added that she was completely unaware of the award of any contract to Videomega Productions but was subsequently informed that “the contract valued at $832,200 was for the production of three sixty- second television Public Service Announcements.”
“The award of this contract was never brought to my attention neither would I have been aware of it in the normal conduct of the Company’s business,” the minister stressed, while adding that following her assumption of a ministerial post, Russel Lancaster was appointed manager and became responsible for the operations of the company.
Nonetheless, Hinds said that from a political standpoint “the optics are bad” and government needs to take note. “Coming on the heels of the revelation of contracts going to Minister Valarie [Yearwood’s] husband, this cannot be good for the image of the government. Remember, the APNU+AFC came to government partly as a result of successfully painting the PPP as the embodiment of corruption. It means that they, the government, implicitly raised the bar for itself,” he said.
“As far as corruption and conflict of interest are concerned, it, therefore, means that there is very little wriggle room for government ministers. So, even if in a technical sense the ministers are not directly guilty of conflict of interest, they have still been exposed to the perception. And this perception, I think, would be formed not only by opposition supporters but also by some government supporters who are very literate on these matters thanks to the experience under the PPP,” he added.
Hinds reasoned that when “you are in a very tight contest,” making reference to upcoming general elections, “you want to ensure that you do very little to appear guilty of these offences because it would be exploited by your opponents, even if they were guilty of the very thing when they were in government.”