January 29, 2023
The ongoing saga of fraud at the Jamaican investment firm Stocks and Securities Ltd (SSL) and how the discoveries of breaches in its operations were treated by the regulatory oversight body, the Financial Services Commission (FSC), has underscored some time-tested duties of leaders. While these duties are time-tested, and presumably well-known, there have been three frightening developments in the SSL-FSC case which have given rise to the need to re-examine them, both the duties and the three recent developments.
In my previous examination of the SSL-FSC saga, in the article entitled ‘Alleged Fraud, Apparent Oversight Failure and, the Risks to Jamaica: The Need for Moral Leadership’ and published here on January 22, 2023, I spoke to the need for a certain kind of leadership and made specific recommendations concerning what that leadership involves, in the current crisis. Two of the developments which have highlighted the need to discuss the time-tested principles are claims by former Chief Executive Officers SSL and the Minister of Finance of not having knowledge of what was taking place at SSL. In an address on the matter on January 23, 2023, the Minister asserted that “neither the FSC board…nor the FSC director nor any other person from the FSC has ever raised Stocks & Securities with me in any way”.
That is a momentous claim for the minister to have made. As it turns out, the minister checked his office records after being tipped by a staffer that a report was sent. Consequently, and frighteningly, the Minister of Finance has now (in 2023), disclosed that a June 2019 report dealing with six entities, including SSL, was sent to his office in April 2020, but this report was “never” brought to his attention.
Alongside the claims of the minister about when he became aware of the happenings at SSL, are the claims of former CEOs from SSL who contend that they were not aware that the reported, alleged and confessed fraudulent activities were taking place under their watch. Simply put, it raises questions about a leader’s sense of duty, knowledge of fiduciary responsibility, and a basic appreciation of his or her job as a leader, to seek to use ignorance as a defense in circumstances in which he or she has a duty, and is paid, to know.
The third development is the disclosure by Prime Minister Andrew Holness who, in his personal capacity as an investor at SSL, withdrew all his investments in 2021.
Fundamental duties of leaders
There are three sacred and non-negotiable duties which leaders have. These duties are enshrined in the leadership principle of accountability. These duties are:
- The leader’s duty to possess knowledge of matters related to his/her job function. A leader tasked with a position of responsibility is paid to know and to create mechanisms to ensure that he or she knows what needs to be known in a timely manner.
- The duty to act appropriately based on the knowledge possessed. While failure to know and to act may be forgivable in certain circumstances, or attributable to the fact of being human and there fallible, not knowing in circumstances where one has assumed fiduciary responsibilities is not a defense. Thus i the same way one is paid to know, not knowing those things one is paid to know in consequential circumstances should mean removing from the position one held, in which knowledge and appropriate action were necessary.
- A leader’s duty to always act in the collective best interest of those whom he or she leads and the organization which he or she serves.
(1) The duty to know: Mindboggling disclosure
The disclosure by the Minister of Finance that the 2019 FSC report which highlighted problems at SSL was not brought to his attention, is mindboggling. In an apparent attempt to minimize the implications of his lack of knowledge, the Minister asserts that under the FSC’s law, the minister is not involved in supervisory decisions and activities as his role is mainly on policy issues. This defense by the minister is unfortunate and untenable for it suggests that what was contained in the 2019 report did not raise policy issues. The strength of that defense is undercut, however, by the raft of policy measures the minister has implemented in response to matters which are now public, some of which were contained in the 2019 report. Thus, the minister’s disclosure, rather than relieving him of any obligation, based on initial ignorance, has highlighted the incontestable duty to know.
Minister Clarke’s further explanation is that while the report was received by his office, it was “…never brought” to his attention. Three questions arise for which the answers are simple and should be immediately forthcoming. These are:
- Which senior officer received the report / to which officer was it directed?
- Did the officer review the report?
- What considerations informed that officer’s decision not to brief the minister on the contents of the report
These questions may well be premature as it is unclear from the minister’s explanation whether the report was ever reviewed. According to the minister, having been tipped that a report was sent, he “personally returned to the cabinets…and searched approximately five years’ worth of records”.
Could it be the case that the report was filed away in a cabinet and never reviewed or reviewed and simply filed? The answer to both questions is problematic. For if the report were never reviewed then the minister and his team failed to arm themselves with knowledge; and if the report were reviewed and not actioned then the minister and his team are derelict, but the buck stops with the minister. In a similar vein, the management of SSL cannot claim that not knowing means that they cannot be held accountable, when the nature of their job required that they know what is happening to the investment of people who repose trust in them and the company.
(2) The duty to act
Based on the facts and analyses above, with the Minister of Finance and Planning admitting that he in fact had received the report means that the minister had a duty to act in a timely manner. The report wasJune 2019. How much wrongdoing took place at SSL between 2019 and 2023? And it is to be borne in mind that SSL was described as a problem institution by FSC from as far back as 2017. The duty to act was therefore both that of FSC and the Minister of Finance.
Whatever the investigations will uncover, it is now a matter of public record that FSC knew of the existence of problems at SSL prior to 2017. These problems, from all the available evidence, rose to the level of justifying the suspension of SSL’s licene but FSC, for reasons yet to be understood, did not suspend SSL’s licene. It is also now a matter of public record that the minister received a report in 2020 and thus had the opportunity to know, knew, or ought to have known what was happening at SSL. That the minister did not know, in 2020, amounts, in my view, to nonfeasance. So, both the watchman (the FSC) and the man whom the taxpayer hired to supervise the watchman, failed to war the city that danger was nigh.
The other troubling piece of this saga is the fact that FSC would have known what was in its own report. That it did not inquire of the minister about his view on the report when it had not received feedback is hard to swallow. What is worse is that, according to the minister, he had several encounters with FSC after April 2020 and the FSC on no occasion mentioned the 2019 report, sent in 2020 to which it had received no response. To accept that these assertions are true, places a heavy strain on one’s consciousness.
(3) The duty to protect
The other duty of leaders is to protect
The duty to know and act was not just that of the FSC and the Minister of Finance. The Prime Minister also had and has a duty to know and to act. All three parties have a duty to ensure that the actions they take protect citizens (those who invested in SSL) and the country (given the consequences that can flow to the entire economy if SSL were mishandled – as it clearly has).
The disclosure by the Prime Minister that he, as a private investor in SSL, took the decision in 2021 to close his accounts there, requires, at a minimum (without the presumption of malice or wrongdoing on the PM’s part), an explanation. Such an explanation is needed to demonstrate that he was not using knowledge gained in the course of his official duties to act to protect his personal investments, while withholding that information from citizens who were exposed. The Prime Minister should say what led to the decision to withdraw, and what he knew at the time of withdrawing his funds (if anything), and what he did with what he knew.
It goes without saying but must be stated that if the Prime Minister, in his personal capacity as an investor, came in possession of information about problems at SSL, he had a duty to exercise his public function and take steps to address the situation. Thus the key question remains: What did the Prime Minister know, when did he know it, and what did he do about what he knew?
Professor Canute Thompson is Professor of Educational Policy, Planning, and Leadership at the School of Education, The University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, and Head of the Caribbean Centre for Educational Planning. He is author of two award-winning books and articles, among his collection of eight books and over a dozen journal articles, and the operator of leadershipreimagination.com website.