A case of censure and maybe breach of trust

By Lauren A. Albert

The Presidential Housing Allowance under debate in Trinidad and Tobago raises serious questions about accountability, transparency, integrity – and perhaps legal and constitutional questions – within that nation’s governmental system.

Central to the debate is the division of responsibility by public officials and President Anthony Carmona’s access to a monthly allowance of $28,000 in addition to accommodation provided by the state.

Arguably, neither the president nor the administrative and elected officials responsible for the allocation of public resources can absolve themselves from censure respecting the misuse of these funds. While the people of T&T await a full governmental response to the issue, it is imperative that an unbiased analysis of the political-administrative system takes place.

The object here is to delineate the “lines of authority” and identify the “locus of responsibility for decisions” in this system of parliamentary government.

Review of the president’s salary terms and conditions rests with the Salaries Review Commission (SRC). The president’s housing allowance is clearly defined in the 2013 Report of the SRC which outlines the “official residences … (that are) maintained by the state.” What is significant is the report’s stipulation that “Where the official residence is not available for use by the president, and suitable alternative accommodation is not provided, an allowance of $28,000 per month” will be made available.

Moreover, section 141(2) of the Constitution states that “the report of the SRC concerning any review of salaries or other conditions of service … shall be submitted to the president who shall forward a copy thereof to the prime minister for presentation to the Cabinet.” Further, section 24(3) of the Constitution states “the salary and allowances of a president … shall not be altered to his disadvantage after he has assumed office.”

In this case, the president was given both state accommodation and a housing allowance, so not only was he not disadvantaged but his alleged acceptance of the allowance is in direct conflict with the SRC report – especially the provisions that address the housing allowance’s incompatibility with state-provided residency.

The president’s acceptance of that allowance also reveals a discrepancy between the knowledge of the office and that of the chief personnel officer (CPO) since reports prepared by the SRC are signed by the CPO and submitted to the president.

This political-administrative discrepancy becomes more evident when sections 13, 15 and 16 of the Civil Services Act are considered. More specifically, if the CPO was uncertain as to whether the allowance should have been issued to the president, consultation could have taken place with the minister of finance. Additionally, Section 84 B(1) of the PSC’s regulations states that “where the (Public Service) Commission becomes aware of an allegation of indiscipline or misconduct … the commission shall appoint an officer to investigate such allegation.”

Thus, a full and thorough investigation in accordance with the PSC seems warranted. Strangely, the AG has requested an opinion on the matter from one of his predecessors, Russell Martineau (SC).

In Canada, the T&T presidential housing allowance issue resonates with the “housing allowance affair” involving Sen. Mike Duffy, facing 31 charges of fraud, breach of trust and corruption following a full investigation by the RCMP.

It is therefore imperative that a neutral third party investigate this issue in T&T to determine if it is a case of political-administrative oversight and thus “collective censure” or an individual breach of trust.

However, whatever conclusions can be made about the president, the CPO and Opposition Leader Dr. Keith Rowley, who allegedly knew of this institutional anomaly but neglected to present the issue, this political-administrative pathology detracts from the theory and practice of responsible government.

Lauren A. Albert (Trinidad born) received her Bachelor’s degree (cum laude) in communications from Messiah College, Pennsylvania, and is completing post-graduate studies in Public Policy, Administration and Law at York University.

Lauren Albert
Lauren Albert