Colombo Telegraph

The Assault On Weliamuna

By Rohan Samarajiva

Prof. Rohan Samarajiva

Attorney-at-Law J.C. Weliamuna is under attack. One charge is that he received professional compensation for the report on mismanagement of SriLankan Airlines. A second is that he undertook the assignment while serving as Chairman of Transparency International Sri Lanka. A third is that he declined to disclose the individual payments (he revealed the total amount paid to the committee that he chaired). A fourth is that the assignment was not given to the committee based on competitive procedures.

As a professional who has come under attack on some of the same grounds, I believe I can shed light on this controversy.

Fees for services

Is it wrong to charge for one’s professional expertise? Some commentators were “shocked” that a four member committee working under time pressure was paid LKR 3.5 million, inclusive of costs, for six weeks of work that produced a detailed 136 page report on SriLankan Airlines, a government-owned enterprise that lost a total of LKR 29 billion in 2014, according to the latest Central Bank Annual Report. Given the extensive cross-subsidies to Mihin Lanka, the actual total loss for the combined airlines in 2014 was LKR 28,348 million. That means that the government airlines investigated by the Weliamuna Committee lost LKR 77.7 million per day.

SriLankan Airlines is a large and complex organization. In 2014 it had 6,903 employees and flew 12,719 million passenger kilometers. It would seem that LKR 3.5 million is a reasonable price to pay for four professionals to make a reliable assessment of whether such an organization was mismanaged.

The former CEO of SriLankan was paid LKR 1.5 million a month, in addition to other salaries and benefits. Four professionals, including Mr Weliamuna, were paid LKR 3.5 million inclusive of costs for 1.5 months to untangle the mess that had been created. Does this seem too much?

Some of the commentators wanted Mr Weliamuna and his colleagues to work pro bono. I am sure Mr Weliamuna has done enough pro bono work, including for some of his accusers. But is it wrong that he charged fees for this particular assignment? Especially an assignment that causes the kind of flack Mr Weliamuna is taking now? Would there be any guarantee of quality for work done for nothing?

Conflict of interest?

Is there anything wrong with providing services for fee while serving as Chair of Transparency International’s Sri Lanka unit? Mr Weliamuna was an employee of TI-Sri Lanka until 2010. But he no longer is. Depending on the terms and conditions of employment, it may be improper for employees of TI-Sri Lanka to undertake outside assignments. But Mr Weliamuna has not been an employee for the past four years. Generally, members of the Boards of non-profit organizations do not get paid for their services. Are they supposed to live on air?

Disclosure of fees

The normal practice would be to ask the relevant person in government, in this case the Secretary of the Ministry of Aviation, what was paid to an outside consultant. When the Cabinet approval of my contract made the news in 2002, questions were not directed to me, but to the Secretary of the Ministry for Economic Reforms, Science and Technology.

For some reason, the journalist appears to have chosen to ask the chair of the committee. Perhaps because of his background as a public-interest lawyer or perhaps because he knew the interrogator, Mr Weliamuna has answered the question and disclosed the total amount. When pressed for a detailed breakdown, he has balked, possibly because that would have involved disclosing the fees received by his colleagues on the committee. For this, he is excoriated unjustly.

Selection for the assignment

Anonymous government officials are quoted questioning the selection. Does anyone seriously believe that a sensitive assignment like this should be assigned to a contractor procured through a tender board? When commissions of inquiry were appointed in the past were they not paid? Were they procured following the complex procedures set out in the “Blue Book”? Would this have served the public purpose of exposing and dealing with corruption and mismanagement in a timely manner?

The larger problem

The flimsy grounds on which Mr Weliamuna is being attacked point to a larger problem.

The late Lee Kuan Yew said that if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. People who undertake serious business for the government should be paid serious money and held accountable for what they produce. It is wrong to think that investigative exercises such as what is at issue here can be done by volunteers. The problem is not what we pay people; it is the quality of what they produce.

Journalists should focus their energies on the quality of the output of the Weliamuna Committee. I know it’s a little difficult when the government has not made the entire report public, and only released snippets.

Here is where the urgent enactment of the Right to Information (or as it is now called, the Freedom of Information) Bill becomes relevant. An RTI request to the Secretary of the Aviation Ministry would have enabled a journalist who so desired to learn how much the individual members of the committee were paid. Even more importantly, an RTI request, or a threat of one, would have enabled perusal of the contents of the output produced by the committee so that an assessment could be made whether it justified the expenditure of public funds.

The culture of openness that would be created by the very existence of an RTI/FOI Law would have spared us of this kind of petty and counter-productive discussion. It would have allowed us to focus on the important issues, which are the causes and persons responsible for a government-owned enterprise that contributed dividends in the millions to the Treasury when it was properly managed losing LKR 29 billion (or more than double the annual entire expenditure on Samurdhi payments) in 2014 alone.

But perhaps, I and the journalist both miss the point. Perhaps taking our attention away from the main issues is the purpose. When we are debating the propriety of four professionals making an average of LKR 21,000 a day on a short-term, time-sensitive assignment, we are not discussing how individuals who earned multiple millions in monthly salaries and benefits caused losses to the public in the billions.

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