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Old Monday, February 22, 2016
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Angry NAB needs reform

NAB needs reform


The prime minister’s recent public rebuke of the National Accountability Bureau was rather irresponsible. Whatever the merits of Sharif’s displeasure, he should have refrained from publically rebuking a key organ of state and starting a media trial. Such behaviour sends the wrong signals and undermines civil institutions.

In a country where corruption and abuse of office is rampant, especially on the senior levels of every organ of state, an aggressive anti-corruption approach is needed. While NAB’s aggressive efforts have certainly yielded some good results, its sledgehammer practices and weak professionalism combined with absence of any accountability have undermined its credibility and public standing.

NAB needs to shed its witch-hunt approach and Gestapo-like culture of arresting people even before any reasonable investigation has been carried out. NAB staff have been particularly poor in distinguishing between well-meaning errors of judgement, which will always happen when decisions are made, and mala-fide decisions by the corrupt. It has also been overzealous in pursuing frivolous complaints and hearsay allegations. Its stance of treating most ‘persons of interest’ as guilty even before credible investigation has been completed undermines the basic tenet of jurisprudence – innocent unless proven guilty.

Most disconcerting is that NAB has been used as an instrument of political score settling. The bureau has made life hell for a large number of senior civil servants. It has made many suffer even incarceration without reason, and has not compensated them – either through a public apology or reimbursement of legal fees – for such wrongdoing on its part. Its capacity is extremely weak – whether on sound understanding of the complexity of many economic and procurement decisions or professionally investigating such white collar crime. And it hides this weakness by using coercive methods.

NAB’s response to the PM’s pronouncements was a disappointing facile press statement. The bureau needs to undertake serious introspection of its policies, business processes and track record, and initiate deep reforms to quickly address the issues raised both by the PM and in the past by credible anti-corruption and institutional experts.

First and foremost, NAB needs to establish independent external and internal oversight and accountability mechanisms, to ensure that it works to highest professional standards and does not pursue suspects like hardened criminals before investigations are complete.

NAB should establish a ‘Blue Ribbon’ Advisory and Oversight Board, comprising eminent citizens with unblemished integrity record; they must be held in high esteem publically. The board could be headed by a highly respected retired chief justice, retired senior civil servants, eminent lawyers and heads of local affiliates of leading international accounting firms. In addition it should comprise one or two retired senior executives of globally known anti-corruption agencies.

The board should have advisory oversight of NAB operations ensuring that it remains apolitical, follows due process and best practice anti-corruption drive. The board would also ensure proper checks on NAB’s unbridled and unaccountable powers.

In addition, there needs to be an independent full time internal audit commissioner reporting to the Oversight Board and the chairman; s/he should not be a regular NAB employee. He/she would regularly audit on-going investigations to ensure that NAB staff are following laid-down procedures, that frivolous and unsubstantiated complaints are not pursued and witch-hunt practices are minimized.

Having an independent commissioner would strengthen NAB’s credibility and professional standing, and be a check on the overzealous low/mid-level NAB officials, especially on their eagerness to look good in the eyes of their superiors.

Second, NAB needs to retrench low integrity and low-quality staff, including those that practise abusive methods. It must ensure that all investigations and interviews are carried out by highly qualified officers, and not the low capacity ‘run of the mill’ investigators. Very often NAB’s first level investigators and even senior staff are clueless about the complex economic and sector policies that underpin many decisions.

NAB should engage international white collar experts for a few years to train its staff and establish sound investigative practices and internal business processes. One practice the NAB must institute immediately is that all investigations and interviews must be carried out by teams, so that no one individual is in a position to take undue advantage. NAB must also immediately discontinue the practice of arrests and remands before an investigation is fully complete, except where it is absolutely essential and authorised by the Oversight Board.

Another critical action that NAB must take is to publically disseminate, through its website and via seminars, all its business processes and investigative framework, so that abuse of office and rent-seeking behaviour by its staff is minimised. In addition, NAB must develop and aggressively disseminate among civil servants, case studies and position papers which clearly enunciate the principles that NAB uses to distinguish between honest errors of judgement and decisions based on unsound principles and mala-fide intent.

It is absolutely essential that senior civil servants must be encouraged to take decisions based on sound principles, without fear, especially decisions where the ‘first best’ is not obvious. NAB must ensure that its staff don’t understand complex economic and procurement decisions.

Finally NAB must review its policy of plea bargaining. Crooks can plea bargain a reduced jail term, but confiscation of all their ill-gotten wealth and a minimum jail sentence must be standard practice.

NAB has the potential of being a world class anti-corruption agency. But for that to happen, deep internal reforms and capacity building are needed.

Published in The News 22nd February, 2016.
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