Public standards bill due in January

It is “envisaged” that legislation changing the way public officers conduct daily business will be brought to the Legislative Assembly in January, according to the chairman of the Commission for Standards in Public Life.

However, according to local attorney Karin Thompson, who has led the commission for the past four years, the chances of the independent body having significant investigative resources in the current financial climate were “bleak.”

Also, Ms Thompson, who will soon step down as commission chairperson, noted that the group’s remit under Cayman’s 2009 Constitution Order would serve to limit the group’s mandate. She said the commission would have to depend on the Standards in Public Life Bill in January to widen the scope of its investigations.

“One of the interesting, and if I may say, unfortunate anomalies of the 2009 Constitution is that, unlike the Human Rights Commission … if we look at the [Commission for Standards in Public Life’s] power of investigation, it is limited,” Ms Thompson told a group of about 80 people gathered at the Westin Grand Cayman Seven Mile Beach Resort conference room for the government’s Professional Development Week lecture series.

The government released the proposed Standards in Public Life Bill in October, nearly four years after the creation of a constitutional commission that was supposed to be policing public officials’ actions, but which had no legal “teeth” to do so.

Regardless of when the bill is passed, Premier Alden McLaughlin has said Cabinet ministers’ interests in companies will have to be disclosed in much more detail when a new code of conduct for ministers is finalized. In addition, the code – which will be a public document – addresses management of conflicts of interests, constituency interests and provides guidance and acceptance of gifts.

Official travel by government ministers will also have to be reported, as per the code, Mr. McLaughlin said.

“We are setting the bar for any future governments,” Mr. McLaughlin said. He said code of conduct guidelines will also apply to non-voting members of Cabinet, but that those members’ interests and conflicts will be overseen by the governor.

According to the Standards in Public Life Bill, 2013, the proposal “seeks to implement the Constitution” with regard to the operation of the Commission for Standards in Public Life.

The bill seeks mandatory disclosure of a conflict of interest with respect to “any matter that comes up for discussion” as soon as the matter appears on an agenda for any public meeting. The bill requires the individual with the conflict to “leave the place in which deliberations are taking place” and orders them not to participate directly or indirectly in any deliberations touching on the matter.

The proposal also requires “a person in public life” to, within 90 days of assuming the functions of office, make a declaration to the commission of income, assets, and liabilities during the previous year. For a candidate seeking election to the Legislative Assembly, that declaration should be made before the person files nomination papers. After the first declaration, no later than June 30 of each year, the declaration must be updated, according to the bill.

Declarations should include: shareholdings and directorships in any company or corporate body; any contract made with a public entity; any company, partnership or association in which money is invested; any trust; any beneficial interest held in land; any investment fund in which an interest is held, any political, trade, professional, fraternal or charitable association or organization to which there is a connection; sources of income other than salary or other emoluments of office.

The income, assets and liabilities of a person in public life include the income, assets and liabilities acquired, held or incurred by any other person as his agent or on his behalf. The bill would require the Commission for Standards in Public Life to keep the public declarations for at least three years.

The legislation makes it a criminal offence, punishable by two years imprisonment and a $10,000 fine, if any public official fails to furnish the commission with a declaration of interests, knowingly makes a false declaration relative to those interests, or who fails to attend an enquiry conducted about those interests.