Jul 10, 2008

World - Sick Transit

The murder of an anti-corruption campaigner

A PROMISE to root out corruption was one reason why Bruce Golding led his Jamaica Labour Party to an election victory last year, ending 18 years of rule by the People’s National Party. But suddenly the battle to clean up government has turned bloody. On June 27th two gunmen murdered Douggie Chambers, the chairman of the Jamaica Urban Transit Company. He had gone out into the street for a quick smoke before signing an agreement with union leaders. Even in a country with one of the world’s highest murder rates, his killing on June 27th came as a shock.
Mr Chambers was an accountant and a specialist fraud investigator brought in by Mr Golding on a token salary to reform the transit company, which runs the capital’s bus service. It was losing over $25m a year, because of petty scams and a padded staff, with almost ten workers for each functioning bus. Several managers were fired within weeks. On the day he died, Mr Chambers had finalised redundancy terms for 485 workers.

For all its everyday violence, contract killings of public figures are rare in Jamaica. The finger was quickly pointed at the Klansman gang, which runs protection rackets around the bus depot in Spanish Town, the district where Mr Chambers was shot. His murder is a big setback for Mr Golding and for Jamaica, whose anaemic economy and indebted government are saddled with several loss-making state enterprises. The public sector already found it hard to recruit capable and honest managers, and will now find it harder.
The government is trying to clean up the customs, a “hotbed of corruption” involving private companies and officials, according to the finance minister, Audley Shaw. It is also reforming the National Housing Trust, which provides cheap mortgages. Last month it signed an agreement that turns the loss-making state-owned sugar industry into a joint venture with a Brazilian ethanol company.
Will Mr Chambers have died in vain? The government has sent a bill to parliament to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate corruption. A junior minister from the former government was charged in February with fraudulently extracting cash from a Cuban scheme which supplied free energy-saving light bulbs to Jamaican households.
Not everyone has been applauding the new government’s efforts. The main business lobby complained that Mr Shaw’s drive for tax compliance was “anti-private sector”. After Mr Chamber’s murder, it offered a reward of less than $7,000 for information about the crime. That will do little to ensure that his killers—and their associates—are swiftly caught and punished.

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