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N Touch
Wednesday 13 December 2017
Local

The whistleblower who sank the ship

On August 15 the Board of the Port Authority of Trinidad and Tobago (PATT) suspended a senior member of its management team in response to claims that confidential information was leaked to the press.

On November 13, 2015 Prime Minister Dr. Keith Rowley laid the Whistle-blower Protection Bill, 2015 in the House of Representatives. According to Attorney General Faris Al Wari, the proposed Bill is intended to combat corruption by encouraging disclosures of improper conduct and wrong doing in public office. It was the AG’s hope that the Bill would be passed in the Parliament by July 2016, but alas this has not happened.

We are now in September 2017 and I feel that the public may owe some gratitude to the alleged “PATT leaker”, and because we have no such legal protection, he/she may face disciplinary action, possibly up to the extent of his/her dismissal if the allegation is established.

The term “leaker” has become more popular since the Trump presidency. However, in more developed countries, whistle-blower protection is also afforded to citizens who disclose information anonymously to the media. Legal protection for such disclosures is normally limited to the exposure of criminal wrong doing for public good, as opposed to when classified national security information, or embarrassing political gossip and social scandal are leaked.

This reality confirms that leaking of confidential information to the media can be consistent with legitimate whistleblowing as our proposed legislation contemplates. However, the current form of our Bill is deficient in this regard, and only views protected disclosures as those which may be given to an internal entity of an organisation referred to as a Whistleblowing Reporting Officer.

To date, we seem no closer to having that proposed legislation completed, because maybe it was simply political machinations from the newly elected administration aimed at catching the wrongdoers of the previous one. The problem is, corruption and public wrongdoing will occur under any administration.

It is quite common that investigative journalists receive information from internal sources which assist their investigations into questionable public transactions. This often leads to the public exposures of corruption and wrongdoing by public officials.

The details of the reports in our media on the procurement of both the Cabo Star and Ocean Flower 2 are already well-ventilated and raise the questions of procurement deficiencies, particularly with respect to the latter. It is accordingly well within the public domain that the government has had to terminate the charter party for that vessel.

This is a time when this government has the great task of steering the TT ship through rough, stormy waters of current depressed energy prices, crime and public corruption etc. What is now required is astute leadership at all quarters of the society which should aim to protect the public purse, given that the population is already burdened with belt tightening measures and job losses. The perception of mismanagement, and government’s failure to even try to deal with corruption, will leave the working-class voters with a bitter taste at the next general election.

Citizens and employees need to be able to step forward with information without fear of retribution. Good legislation will put pressure on institutions and organisations to improve their governance structures and root out corruption, thereby reducing the need for stringent public oversight.

A whistleblower may not always enjoy absolute protection, such as, when the leaker is deemed the bearer of deliberate false witness and or is part of the wrongdoings complained of.

Most of my past and present clients have internal whistleblower policies and procedures in place, particularly the international ones. Some companies even offer hotlines which provide secure facilities for employees to offer anonymous tips of alleged wrongdoing.

These protective measures ease the conscience of employees who may fear discrimination, retaliation and even termination. Depending on the culture, of the organisation, an unprotected whistleblower can be labelled a “snitch”, “traitor”, “brown-nose” or any other debasing term.

One major advantage of whistleblowing protection, is the opportunity for the internal leadership to control and manage investigations and communications. This can be achieved in a manner which demonstrates transparency, integrity and confidence in the process.

The Japanese Whistle Blower Protection Act of 2004 explicitly states that its purpose is to contribute to the stabilisation and general welfare of the life of every citizen. The law aims to promote compliance concerning the protection of life, property and other interests. This in my view sets the tone and direction for organisational culture and the wider society as a whole.

The United States’ Securities and Exchange Commission even provides monetary reward to persons who give information which results in sanctions for corporate misconduct.

Disclosers to the media are normally very difficult allegations to prove as the journalists are not normally required to reveal their sources. I trust, however, that in the case of the PATT “leaker”, that management considers whether or not the alleged act was simply a malicious breech of confidential information, or whether the leaker was acting in the public good.

The Prime Minster has publicly admitted that corruption is one of the biggest challenges for his government. I expect therefore, his government moves with haste and have Whistle-blower Protection Law enacted as soon as possible.

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