Consider This | The art of the steal, pt. 1
“I sit as a judicial officer, and justice must not only be done, but seen to be done.” — Chief Magistrate Joyann Ferguson-Pratt
In daily social intercourse with friends, colleagues and acquaintances, a common recurring theme often arises. Two frequently asked questions emerge: ‘Are we losing control of our country and our basic freedoms?’ and ‘Is there too much interference from the government and its agencies in our daily lives?’ There is a general view that Bahamians are increasingly treated like second-class citizens in their own country. This sentiment is frequently confirmed when we encounter difficulties obtaining routine government services, when attempting to conduct simple banking transactions and when dealing with regulators. The same, relentless feeling of frustration is normally not as prevalent when sourcing services from the private sector.
Therefore, this week, we will Consider this… Do Bahamians increasingly feel that some of our traditional institutions have become dysfunctional, resulting in a sense that our patrimony and our culture are being stolen from us?
In this two-part series, we will use three recent but powerful examples to consider this week’s questions, namely: (1) the recently failed political prosecution by the Free National Movement (FNM) government, (2) the irresistible love affair that successive governments have developed and demonstrate for foreign investors, regardless of their questionable bona fides and (3) the unrelenting attack on our sovereignty by countries who insist that we police their citizens who conduct business offshore.
On Friday past, a magistrate discharged and dismissed the bribery and extortion charges against Frank Smith, the former Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) member of Parliament and former chairman of the Public Hospitals Authority (PHA).
Two years ago, shortly after assuming office, the FNM government accused Frank Smith of abusing his position as PHA chairman by extorting some of the proceeds of a $516,000 contract that was awarded to Barbara Hanna, the owner of Magic Touch Cleaning, to clean the Critical Care Unit of the Princess Margaret Hospital. Over the past two years, after inordinate and enormously expensive delays in the trial, the judge finally rendered a scathing rebuke of the prosecution, singling out two government ministers for bringing this matter to trial. The judge decried as “egregious” the conduct in this case of the sitting government ministers.
In acquitting Smith of all charges against him, the judge found: “There is not a scintilla of evidence to support the fact that there was a meeting between Barbara Hanna and the accused prior to the award of the contract.”
The judge ruled: “The court, having regard to Barbara Hanna’s demeanor, found her to be discredited and her evidence manifestly unreliable. Together with the inconsistencies of the witnesses and inclusive of the key witness, I do not consider that a sufficient case has been made out to lead a defense.”
The judge also noted that the award of a second contract of $1.8 million to Hanna by current Health Minister Dr. Duane Sands, after she had made her corruption claims, raised a “specter of impropriety”. Regarding the award of a second contract, the judge noted: “It was wholly inappropriate for a serving Cabinet minister who had previously received campaign money (from the accused) who had a pending application before the PHA” to have awarded the contract. The magistrate further noted that Minister Sands awarded Hanna a contract without the approval of the PHA board.
The judge further questioned the veracity of the evidence of telephone call logs that were produced by the police and introduced into evidence by the prosecution. Regarding the call logs, the magistrate determined that “the call logs were likely manipulated to create a false impression that the accused was constantly calling Barbara Hanna, when in fact it was the reverse”.
On the basis of the evidence, the judge’s ruling, and Smith’s acquittal, it is clear that this was a case involving the premeditated and calculated manipulation of evidence by agents of the state against one of its citizens. It was a despicable and disgraceful attempt to steal his reputation, his good name, his professional standing and his freedom. But for Smith’s ability to launch a successful defense against those charges, the state might have succeeded with this attempted theft.
The upshot of this entire fiasco is that this was a political prosecution – plain and simple. Nothing more, nothing less. This was an abuse of power by the state and an abuse of office. Political prosecutions are characteristic of ruthlessly autocratic and despotic regimes like those found in North Korea, Yemen, Iraq, Iran and Syria. Such behavior by the state and its agencies is unprecedented in The Bahamas. It will forever remain a blight on the administration of justice by overzealous police and prosecutors.
As is so frequently practiced in The Bahamas, we seem irresistibly compelled to look abroad for legal counsel to prosecute these matters. The government must explain to Bahamians, why, at a time of financial restraint, it was necessary to engage the services of foreign legal counsel. Surely the government could have found suitably qualified legal counsel in the Office of the Attorney General to prosecute this case.
What was the cost of this prosecution to the state? It is reported that the British prosecutor who represented the Crown was paid enormous legal fees for his services. How much was paid to him in legal fees? What was the cost of his travel? It is safe to assume that each time he crossed the Atlantic, he traveled in business class, at least. What was the cost of his airfare, hotel accommodations and incidentals? And, given the numerous delays that were experienced during this trial over the past two years, we are absolutely certain that those costs were replicated many times. The government owes the Bahamian people a full and completely accurate accounting for the cost of the British attorney for this exercise, since it is the Bahamian people who are paying this bill.
The same questions are not relevant when considering the engagement by private persons who, if they can afford it, must bear the cost of their own defense. Compared to how private citizens decide to spend their personal funds, there are different considerations to be made by how funds are spent by the public sector. The latter expenditures are made from the people’s taxes, and the people have a reasonable expectation of their government that those expenditures are to be done in the most cost-effective and prudent manner.
We look forward to the outcomes of the remaining two political prosecutions that are currently before the courts.
In part two of this series, we will address the ongoing and overwhelming love affair with foreign investors that successive governments have unwaveringly maintained and unabashedly flaunted, with no regard for questionable bona fides, past histories or experience. We will also examine recent developments in the unrelenting attack on our sovereignty by countries who insist that we must police their citizens who wish to conduct their private business offshore.
• Philip C. Galanis is the managing partner of HLB Galanis and Co., Chartered Accountants, Forensic & Litigation Support Services. He served 15 years in Parliament. Please send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.