FRIDAY, FEB. 3: When it comes to ethics, corruption, croneyism, self-dealing and all that other ugly stuff, I have no doubt that our Premier has her heart in the right place. I’m confident she wants to implement the policy and law changes that are needed to enforce standards of conduct we ought to be able to take for granted.
But does she have the moxie to whip her own team into shape? Is it, in fact, really her team at all?
I find myself with the same unsettled feeling I had two or three years ago, when it became clear that somebody needed to put the brakes on former Premier Dr Ewart Brown.
Somebody needed to force him to start practising responsible, collective government as it is accepted in modern democracies. Ms Cox, who was his deputy and finance minister, was the only person in Cabinet with the status and popularity to compel Dr Brown to do anything, and she failed.
Now the positions are reversed. Ms Cox is the Premier, and the problem she needs to deal with lies with her deputy, Transport Minister Derrick Burgess.
Now somebody needs to force him to start practising responsible, collective government as it is accepted in modern democracies.
Bermudians are now familiar with two examples of the issue, because they were investigated and highlighted by the Auditor General in her most recent report.
In brief, public money was used to pursue a lawsuit in which Minister Burgess (together with then-Premier Dr Brown) were fighting a defamation case in Canada.
And secondly, the Bermuda Land Development Company, which came under Mr. Burgess’s aegis, paid $160,000 in “consultancy fees” to its own chairman and deputy chairman to examine how the BLDC was working.
The comments of the deputy chairman to the Bermuda Sun earlier this week made things look even less appropriate.
“I never viewed this money as consultancy fees,” said Pastor Leroy Bean (the PLP’s parliamentary candidate for St. George’s South).
“The job we were asked to do — investigate the workings of this government company — was done as part of our roles as chairman and deputy chairman. I did not view myself as a consultant at any time.”
Yet when the Auditor General reported the problem to the Premier, and the Premier recommended the chairman and deputy chairman vacate their positions, Mr Burgess, from what we know so far, apparently did nothing about it. The question now is whether Ms Cox or her party are, themselves, going to do anything about Mr. Burgess.
Conflict of interest is hard to avoid in a small place like Bermuda, it is true, and sometimes ethical requirements are complicated or highly technical.
The US House of Representative’s Ethics Manual, for example, is 444 pages long; there is also a 53-page House Rule Book, an 18-point official Code of Conduct, Federal Election Commission rules, and an additional six pages of rules specifically governing personal financial transactions.
But there’s nothing the least bit complicated or technical about the concept that politicians and political appointees should not use their positions for personal gain or enrichment.
Even relatively small gain for work honestly done can do severe damage to the reputation of a politician or a political party, of a government and of a country, for fairness and openness.
Bermuda — and its government — cannot afford the damage this does, even if it could afford the BLDC consultancy fees and the legal costs of a private lawsuit.
More serious and more worrying, I believe, is that the Deputy Premier clearly sees absolutely nothing wrong with any of this.
He has vigorously defended his actions and inactions. Among other things, he has argued that there is no law, and no BLDC company bye-law, that prevents the BLDC from paying consultancy fees to its own chairman.
It is worrying because it applies an appallingly low standard for ethical decisions. If there’s no law against it, it’s apparently okay. If you can’t get jailed for it, maybe it’s fine to do it.
This isn’t an outlook that we’re looking for in a leader.
It makes you wonder — or fear, rather — what else might be going on in Government that would violate most ethical codes but would be cheerfully condoned by the Deputy Premier.
Mr Burgess is the second-top leader in our government. He has an important role to play as steward of the public money, and protector of good government.
Bermuda cannot afford for this to continue. Mr Burgess needs to radically change his approach, or be firmly but politely escorted to the door.