BELIZE CITY, Mon. July 20, 2020– At last week’s sitting of the Senate, it was decided that attorney Deshawn Arzu-Torres would in fact be reinstated as the chairwoman of the Integrity Commission. The chairwoman is now serving her second term after succeeding Marilyn Williams, who left the Commission in 2018.
The Commission consists of seven members and the chairperson, and is tasked with investigating the declared assets and liabilities of elected officials in order to ensure that they are transparent and accountable in regards to their finances.
While there were some senators who favored the decision to reinstate Arzu-Torres, others were very vocal about their uncertainties about how she ran the Commission during her first-term, and how she plans to improve her performance during her second.
NGO senator Osmany Salas was one such person. He stated that making a decision on her reappointment would be a challenge for him, because he believes there should be some sort of appraisal system by means of which the Senate could grade Torres’ performance over the past two years.
Senator Salas went further to quote section 6 of the Prevention of Corruption Act, stating that the Commission is responsible for making an annual report to the National Assembly, but that it did not fulfill that mandate.
Labor senator Elena Smith also made mention of the necessary reports not being delivered to the National Assembly, and expressed her view that the Commission is understaffed and so, has not been performing as well as it should:
“That commission is really and truly not properly staffed. If it is that that commission is properly staffed, then we believe that they would be able to do much more of the work that they should be doing as opposed to what they are doing now… You can’t not give me the tools that I need and expect me to perform at a hundred percent. And then the final matter that we are concerned about is the matter of reports from the Integrity Commission. It is very important because we need to know what is happening,” Smith stated.
The Senator for the Business Community, Mark Lizarraga, also chimed in to state that the organizations he represents have perhaps developed a low tolerance for certain institutions that do not appear to be independent due to their political affiliations or due to their inability to carry out their duties because they have been deliberately undermined.
“We have, in this country a lot of lip service towards oversight. We readily say, oh, but we have the office of the Contractor General, the office of the Ombudsman, the office of the Integrity Commission, this office and that office and the other office. The Public Accounts Committee and all of them. For the most part, there’s this strong perception, this strong disappointment, that they’re not allowed to function because they’re not truly independent, and they need to be,” Senator Lizarraga lamented.
Another concern that was tabled regarding the Integrity Commission was the fact that the commission’s office is a small room in the National Assembly building, with only three employees working there.
Also, according to Senator for Churches, Ashley Rocke, there were multiple procedures not put in place to have the report submitted to the National Assembly when Arzu-Torres was first assigned to the commission. This evidently made it quite the challenge for her and her team to fulfill their duties, he said.
Senator Isabel Bennett of the Opposition also pointed out that one of the main things lacking in the commission is proper communication outlets, and she mentioned the fact that the commission does not even have a professional email address:
She stated, “…It seems like though the Belizean people have always been jilted over the past 12 years. My experience with the Integrity Commission: I arrived here as a senator and I’m told I need to do certain things etc. But the basic thing, even though there is a vision or even though there is projection in the budget, a simple thing such as an email — an official email, does not exist. And some people may say, “but, Senator Bennett, why would you bring that up?” But I am thinking the importance of this meeting simply means that there needs to be structure. Official structure in communication. So anybody out there who wants to communicate with the Integrity Commission for Belize would know that there’s an official medium to be able to communicate with whoever they need to in that office. A simple example. [email protected] — I found that to be very informal. I found that to be so disrespectful for that office, as a matter of fact….So moving forward, my recommendations, as we think about the person moving into that office: We really need to start to harness what our Caribbean brothers and sisters are doing. We are lacking staff, however. We definitely need an investigation branch in that department. We definitely need a corruption prevention division in that office, and we definitely need an administrative commission in that office, so that when those three units are placed together in that Integrity Commission unit we would find that the work that needs to be done can be done so that the Belizean people are not jilted. We need to know that persons who are running for office have integrity, and this office needs to be able to do that.”
Senator Michel Chebat of the Opposition spoke on the matter of the character traits that the chairperson of the commission should have in order to adequately fulfill their role:
“When I looked at this nomination, I had to go back and remind myself what the chairperson of this commission is charged with doing, and undoubtedly, Mr. President, they have an important role to play in the democracy of this country, and I say that, Mr. President, because they are charged with preventing of corruption in public life. This commission has very wide powers, Mr. President. This commission under law can investigate offenses or perceived offenses against this act without the assistance of the police. They have the power to summons witnesses; they have the power to even appoint special investigators if the need may be, and so, Mr. President ….And in this time, especially now when throughout this country the allegations of corruption are so rampant this person, Mr. President, plays an important role in holding firm — in making sure that they do all that they can do to prevent corruption in public life. And, Mr. President, it is not just to appoint for the sake of appointment, because this law and these regulations are only as good as the person who is willing to stand up and enforce them, and so in this appointment, that is the type of person we’re looking for. A person who is independent of political influence and a person of courage, Mr. President,” said Chebat.
Despite these deliberations, Arzu-Torres has been reappointed and will serve for another term of two years as the Chairperson of the Integrity Commission.