loom over what’s next By Chandani Kirinde- Lobby Correspondent Being Chairman of the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) in Sri Lanka’s Parliament hasn’t always been easy. One of its former Chairmen, now Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, had to cross over to the United National Party (UNP) in 2007, following explosive revelations in his COPE report [...]


COPE stirs hope but questions


loom over what’s next By Chandani Kirinde- Lobby Correspondent
Being Chairman of the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) in Sri Lanka’s Parliament hasn’t always been easy. One of its former Chairmen, now Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, had to cross over to the United National Party (UNP) in 2007, following explosive revelations in his COPE report about corruption in government institutions under the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration, made him deeply unpopular within his own party. This week, current COPE Chairman JVP MP Sunil Handunnetti was confronting similar problems. His 55-page report, along with annexures running into nearly 2,000 pages, on the now infamous Central Bank (CB) Bond transaction, was finalised after hours of bickering with UNP MPs in COPE, who had strong disagreements on some of the contents of the Report. The final outcome was one report but two interpretations of events that transpired on February 27, 2015, the day the CB accepted bids for its Treasury Bonds (TB).

Sixteen COPE members including its Chairman endorsed the Report without footnotes, among them were members of the JVP, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) ,the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and members of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), some of who are ministers in this Government.
However, nine members of the UNP endorsed the Report with footnotes contradicting the position taken by the other 16 members, on the role played by former CB Governor Arjun Mahendran, in relation to this transaction, as well as showing that some of the allegations of undue interference by Mr Mahendran were, in fact, based on misconstrued information, while certain other matters required further investigation, before the finger of blame can be pointed at the former Governor. However, they all agreed to recommendations of the Committee.

So far, two out of three Committees that inquired into the TB issue, as well as the Auditor General’s (AG) Report on the matter have concluded that Mr Mahendran played a role in facilitating Perpetual Treasuries, a company in which is son-in-law had an interest, to gain an unfair advantage in the transaction.
In the Report tabled in Parliament on Friday, the members found that the former CB Governor was directly responsible for the questionable TB transaction, and recommended taking legal action against him and other relevant officials of the CB, and steps be taken to recover the monies due to the public.

A report compiled by former COPE Chairman D.E.W. Gunasekera, who looked into the issue in early 2015, also concluded there was wrongdoing on the part of the former Governor. A Committee of lawyers appointed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in March 2015, concluded there was no was evidence to the effect that the former Governor had any direct participation with regards to decisiosn taken on the TB issue, but noted the bidding pattern of Perpetual Treasuries on that day was unusual, and said the matter warrants a “full scale investigation by a proper government authority”.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who spoke in Parliament on Friday, said the Handunnetti Report was a victory for Parliament and for the ‘yahapalanaya’ government. “We have been fighting for Parliament to have control of public finances and we have achieved that. This Report is a victory for Parliament. We have managed to get crooks to embrace ‘yahapalanaya’ with this,” he said.

The lead up to the presenting of Friday’s Report to Parliament was filled with high drama behind closed doors, with the COPE Chairman walking out of one of the meetings, under pressure from UNP MPs eager to see a report that showed the former Governor in a more favorable light, submitted as a final report. Joint Opposition (JO) group member later told reporters at a press briefing that the AG too had been put under duress by UNP members of the Committee, to change the contents of his report, a charge denied by them.

An attempt by MP Handunnetti to explain the reasons for his walkout of the COPE meeting held on October 24, was shot down after several Government MPs said that, by revealing matters that happened during ‘closed door’ discussions would compromise the dignity of the members and the House.

“We have certain principles in the entire Westminster system and certain traditions and practices. The present Chairman has conducted himself honourably and the fact that’ he left that day under stress is understood by all of us. But’ for some MPs to have a different opinion and for that to be reflected in the Report is perfectly all right,” said Leader of the SLMC, Minister Rauff Hakeem, also a COPE member.

Deputy Minister Sujeewa Senasinghe, another COPE member, also expressed his displeasure that information of what transpired within the Committee had been leaked to the media. “It is against the conventions of the House to release information of proceedings of the Committee which are held in camera. We should summon these media organisations to the Committee and find out how they got such information,” he said.

Mr. Senasinghe’s suggestion to summon journalists before the Committee for reporting on a story which had gained wide public interests, runs contrary to measures the COPE Chairman has recommended to increase the effectiveness of COPE in his report submitted to the House on January 26, 2016. In it, MP Handunnetti has called for amendments to the clauses in the Parliamentary (Powers and Privileges ) Act, that prohibits the publishing of proceedings of Parliamentary committees, and to “open investigation activities of Parliamentary committees to the media, and to provide the power to discuss the facts revealed during investigations, inside and outside Parliament, before the reports are tabled in the House.”

The present government has taken pride in the fact that it took a principled stand by allowing two Opposition legislators to head the two most important committees of the House, namely COPE and the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). This certainly augurs well for democracy and is a refreshing change from the former administration, where two Cabinet members presided over the two Committees.

But, for a government that came to power pledging transparency and accountability, it has been found sorely wanting. The National Audit Act has been lying in cold storage for months and no solid steps taken to introduce it to the House. In the absence of the enabling legislation, the setting up of the National Audit Commission too is stalled. Having the Commission in place would strengthen the hands of the Auditor General, and give him wide ranging powers to punish those who rob public finances.

There is no doubt that, however much UNP members within COPE try to salvage their reputation from what transpired in the lead up to the presenting of the TB issue report, the perception of an attempt at a coverup has already caused them much damage. And while the Prime Minister’s promise to forward the Report to the Attorney General for further action, looks a step in the right direction, given the fact that many such reports sent to the AG have just remained there untouched, will not do much to increase the people’s faith in the system.

It was based on the findings of a COPE report presented by former COPE Chairman Wijedasa Rajapakshe, who inquired into the privatisation of the Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation (SLIC) and several other such deals under the administration of former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, that resulted in public interest litigation being filed in the Supreme Court. Subsequently, the Court held the sale of SLIC was irregular, officials responsible for it penalised and monies due to the State recovered. There is hope that the contents of this COPE report too could provide the citizens of this country to initiate legal action on their own, rather than wait for the Government to do it.

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