The conflict, which has arguably exposed the commission to yet another expensive legal challenge, relates to the pending investigation of a complaint against former Attorney General John Jeremie in relation to the saga involving former Chief Justice Satnarine Sharma.
It is understood that on November 15, Jeremie wrote the commission calling for the recusal of Gafoor and commissioner Seunarine Jokhoo from all matters relating to the consideration of the complaint against him. His grounds for so-doing were not directly related to the conduct of either.
In calling for Gafoor’s recusal, Jeremie argued that she should not consider any aspect of the complaint against him on the ground that he had objected to her initial appointment to the commission back in 2009. He also called for her to go on the basis of the questions that were raised in October 2002 in relation to payments of a chauffeur allowance to her.
In relation to Jokhoo, Jeremie raised questions about legal proceedings against a member of Jokhoo’s immediate family.
Apparently on the basis of Jeremie’s requests alone, Gordon has reportedly asked Gafoor, the deputy chairman, and Jokhoo to recuse themselves and to not attend meetings on the issue. This, before the commission as a whole meets to determine whether Jeremie’s request has merit.
Jokhoo, by all indications, has complied with Gordon’s requests.
However, Gafoor has reportedly refused to acquiesce to the chairman’s and Jeremie’s demands.
It is understood that the chairman has sought to persuade Gafoor to absent herself at least five times since November 15, even before the commission as a whole considers the merit of the request by the former PNM attorney general.
The chairman and the deputy chairman could not be reached for comment last night.
Almost a full month since the impasse arose, a special meeting of the commission has been called for tomorrow in order to, for the first time, formally determine the substantive merits of Jeremie’s request.
However, it is understood that there are commission plans to take the highly unusual step of having external senior counsel, a stranger to the commission, attend the meeting in person, which is to be chaired by Gordon. This latest step has also created tension, drawing concern from legal sources.
In a series of what are said to be increasingly caustic exchanges, Gordon has pushed the line of getting Gafoor to step away from the matter. Several meetings and conversations were held between the two, in the absence of the full commission, on the issue.
Last week, Gordon reportedly asked Gafoor to absent herself from a meeting held yesterday during which the commission was to discuss the drafting of a response to Jeremie’s request of November 15. Gafoor refused and indicated that she would attend yesterday’s meeting, which was expected to have taken place at about 9 am.
It is understood that the meeting was pulled forward to at about 8 am and proceeded in the absence of the deputy chairman. By all indications, it is expected that Jeremie is to receive a letter indicating that the constitutional body will “take all appropriate steps necessary to safeguard any conflict of interest in so far as it pertains to any commissioner participating in the determination” of the matter. It is not clear on what basis the issue of conflict of interest has arisen, if at all.
It is claimed that the commission has been warned by Gafoor that such a move could hand Jeremie a major concession by acknowledgment of an issue at hand, where the commission itself has not yet determined if there is even an issue to consider in the first place.
At yesterday’s meeting were: Gordon, Gafoor, commissioners Neil Rolingson and Professor Ann-Marie Bissessar. Jokhoo was absent, apparently given the wishes of the chairman.
A legal source with detailed knowledge of the laws and practices regulating the commission last evening described as “outlandish” the idea that a commission chairman could ask another member to recuse themselves, in the absence of a decision of the commission as a whole as to the issue of merit and as to the procedure to be adopted in relation to the request.
“The commission is a composite whole,” the legal source said. “Nobody can unilaterally tell somebody else on the commission to recuse themselves.”
Further, said the source, “It is not like a tender where there is a conflict of interest. I have no doubt that the chairman cannot ask a member to recuse herself or issue that directive on the basis of an issue that the member does not know about. It is an outlandish position to take.”
The source continued, “as for senior counsel attending a meeting of the commission such a lawyer has no locus standi to be present. Such a move would potentially open up the commission to contamination by a person who is not a member of the commission or even a commission official.”
It is understood that Gordon, last week, asked staff members to read out a letter sent by Gafoor to the commission in which she flatly refused a request by him to absent herself from yesterday’s meeting.
The row between the chairman and his deputy comes almost a month after Gordon, a former politician and businessman, was installed in the post over Gafoor, a former Industrial Court judge.
It is just one of a series of strong disagreements which had beset the commission since Gordon began his tenure. There are also reports that Gordon, a mere week after taking up the post on October 28, imposed a new procedure at the commission which stipulates that all correspondence addressed to the commission be sent to be screened first by counsel before heading to the commissioners.
It is understood that Jeremie has implicitly threatened legal action if the commission does not give in to his requests for the recusal of the officials, even as large question marks loom over their substance.
The complaint against Jeremie which is being investigated was filed by the late Desmond Allum SC, a former head of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA).
Allum, as CBA president, in July 2008, first issued a call for Jermie to be probed to determine whether he attempted to pervert the course of public justice or misbehaved in public office arising out of his reported involvement in the re-purchase of land at Millennium Park, owned by the key witness in the criminal case against Sharma, former Chief Magistrate Sherman Mc Nicolls.
It is alleged that Jeremie, at one point, called on former PNM treasurer Andre Monteil, a former finance director at CL Financial (CLF), to “clean up your mess”, in relation to the deal. The real estate was at the time part of a CLF subsidiary’s real-estate portfolio.
Mc Nicolls alleged Sharma tried to influence him in relation to the 2006 trial of Basdeo Panday but withdrew those allegations when the matter went to criminal proceedings.
The Integrity Commission has recently been embroiled in a series of controversies including: a damning High Court judgment against it which prompted the resignation of the commission in 2009; a series of botched appointments later that year; and the departure of Dr Eric St Cyr who resigned this year after a series of questionable actions in relation to the press.
Gordon, appointed in October, held his first press conference as new chairman last week, saying he would like to see the commission take up more of its powers and to monitor state enterprises. He also called for an easing of the procedures surrounding the requirements for the declaration of assets and interests on the part of public officials.