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Sears: BTC deal could trigger commission of inquiry

If the Bahamas Telecommunications Company(BTC)privatization deal goes through, it could lead to a commission of inquiry and possible criminal charges because of possible conflicts of interest regarding executives of the Utilities Regulation and Competition Authority(URCA), former Attorney General Alfred Sears warned in the House of Assembly yesterday.

URCA announced March 10 that it has approved the controversial deal for the sale of 51 percent of BTC shares to Cable and Wireless Communications(CWC).

However Sears, who was speaking in the House of Assembly during debate on the bills and resolutions relating to BTC’s privatization, said there is a”real possibility”that URCA was biased in its decision to approve the deal. As a result, he urged the government to stop the sale.

As has been widely reported byThe Nassau Guardian, the questions being raised surround URCA’s engagement of Marsha Lewis, who heads LCI Inc. in Barbados, which she formed not long before landing the contract. Lewis is a former executive of Cable and Wireless Communications’Caribbean operations, as is URCA’s current CEO Usman Saadat who introduced his former colleague to URCA in 2009 when he was the regulatory body’s director of policy and regulation.

“URCA has a constitutional, a common law duty because it is a regulator acting in a quasi government capacity,”Sears said.”It is in this context that I ask these questions–whether it is a mere coincidence that Mr. Saadat, former CEO of Cable and Wireless that is now LIME operations in St. Lucia, was appointed as CEO of URCA on the eve of this transaction?

“Is it true that Mrs. Marsha Lewis, a former employee of Cable and Wireless in Barbados up to 2009, was introduced to URCA by Mr. Saadat in 2009 when he served as director of policy and regulation to become the human resources consultant, and was it not to the same Mrs. Lewis that Mr. Saadat applied to the position of CEO of URCA?”

“Mr Speaker, who introduced Cable and Wireless?When were they invited to the bargaining table and by whom?Did the government also offer the sale of 51 percent of the shares to the other bidders in the tender process?”Sears questioned.

“Mr. Speaker, URCA as the adjudicating authority prescribed by law is charged with a constitutional obligation of impartiality. Based on this objective the apparent conflict of interests of the top technical dealers of URCA would leave a fair minded, informed observer having considered all of the facts to conclude that there was a real possibility that URCA was biased in favor of Cable and Wireless.

“On this ground alone, Mr. Speaker, this Honorable House should reject this proposed sale because the process has not been transparent or impartial.

“If it does not pass the smell test, if these questions are not satisfactorily answered there is likely to be a commission of inquiry and possible criminal prosecutions flowing from these events.”

If that is not reason enough for members to reject the sale, Sears added that the transaction is also anti-competitive and anti-Bahamian.

“There is a compelling argument against selling infrastructure to anyone but Bahamians,”he said.

“All views reflect general unease of Bahamians that the government is squandering its political capital and the future of Bahamians to give a sweetheart deal to Cable and Wireless rather than privatize this profitable strategic asset in a manner to increase private Bahamian ownership and increase savings.”

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