Conflict of interest

Friday, 24 November 2017 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

An average person keeping a relatively close eye on the political developments of the last few days would be astounded at the poor understanding Sri Lanka’s politicians have in understanding the term conflict of interest. 

Data extracted by the Attorney General and revealed at the Presidential Commission appointed to probe the controversial bond deals, popularly known as the Bond Commission, showed that several parliamentarians, who are also members of the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE), were in contact with Perpetual Treasuries owner Arjun Aloysius during its tenure to investigate questionable bond transactions. 

According to a report submitted by Sub Inspector Yasanka Jayasinghe attached to the Technical Aid Unit of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), 62 calls had taken place between the mobile phones registered to Aloysius and UNP Parliamentarian Sujeewa Senasinghe. Responding to questions by Additional Solicitor General Yasantha Kodagoda, Jayasinghe said that 36 of those calls were from Aloysius’s phone to Senasinghe’s. The UNP MP was appointed to the COPE chaired by JVP MP Sunil Handunnetti on 7 July 2016. 

Sports Minister Dayasiri Jayasekara had two calls, Power and Energy Deputy Minister Ajith P. Perera two calls and MPs Hector Appuhamy and Harshana Rajakaruna had 23 calls apiece. The ensuing upheaval in parliament hit headlines as parliamentarians alleged that their privileges had been violated and demanded the Speaker initiates an investigation into whether parliamentary privileges were breached. Subsequent clarifications by the Bond Commission, which insisted that no phones were tapped and the information was forensically extracted from Aloysius’s phone, were to no avail. 

The parliamentary committee on privileges has now been tasked with investigating if any breaches had taken place. State Minister Senasinghe this week went on record attributing the calls to him seeking information for a book he wrote on the bond deals.  Sports Minister Dayasiri Jayasekara acknowledged the calls but said they were an appeal from Aloysius to assist him and therefore Jayasekara had avoided future calls. 

All these belated explanations could have been avoided if the Members of Parliament (MPs) had been aware of what a serious conflict of interest these calls were and had reported them at the time they were being made. As COPE members they were appointed to uphold public trust and to work in the people’s interest and if COPE members are seen to be in contact with people who have had serious allegations leveled against them, then the honour and integrity of their office can be lost. 

At a time when a disillusioned public is struggling to have faith in their representatives failing to be transparent and accountable for their actions can have serious repercussions in terms of perception and formulating genuine change in Sri Lanka’s political culture. The MPs who were named in the CID report have denied they were biased in any way while formulating the pivotal COPE report, which assisted in the appointment of the Presidential Commission to investigate the bond transactions and recommend future legal action, but there should also be a mechanism by which members can report such calls and they can be minimised. 

Moreover a COPE member calling a party COPE is investigating to get information to write a book is ill-judged and questionable and best. Such conflicts of interest need to be defined and such interaction discouraged to protect the public faith and independence of COPE as well as other Government bodies.