Wednesday, Jul 17, 2019

Deflection

Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis may never fully address the calls for two of his Cabinet ministers to resign.

He probably won’t offer any meaningful response to the judicial condemnation of those ministers either.

We get it.

It’s a dicey subject for our leader. Perhaps he hopes that the matter disappears like his pledge to fully implement the Freedom of Information Act and introduce a term limit.

But he owes it to Bahamians everywhere to address the matter in a full and frank way.

In the Speech from the Throne, Minnis promised, “My government will ensure that its ministers are held to the highest standards of constitutional and personal conduct.”

Minnis did campaign on an anti-corruption platform.

It’s not every day that a chief magistrate calls the actions of two of your ministers into question.

Just like in 2015 when he called for the resignation or dismissal of Minister V. Alfred Gray over his alleged interference in a judicial matter, Minnis ought to show similar enthusiasm in addressing this issue.

“V. Alfred Gray has interfered with the judicial process and he should not still be allowed to operate as a Cabinet minister,” said Minnis in June 2015. “When a civil servant commits an offense, they are suspended or are placed on administrative leave. Why wasn’t the same done with him? We will not tolerate two sets of laws here.

“The FNM’s position is firm and we will remain resolute. Alfred Gray will not speak in this House.”

It is curious that in 2015 Minnis believed that “it is not only important that justice be done; it must also be seen to be done”.

Last week, he promised to speak on the matter during a special Free National Movement (FNM) event on Grand Bahama. It was a safe venue for the prime minister, a room filled with enthusiastic party supporters. There were familiar faces, loyal faces. No heckling or angry whispers were there.

Instead he fumbled. He chose to deflect. He chose to castigate the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP).

It was also unfortunate that he chose to walk into the FNM event to an R. Kelly song, the week the singer was charged with sexual abuse allegations. Someone should tell the party to put an end to the R. Kelly music.

But we digress.

On February 1, Chief Magistrate Joyann Ferguson-Pratt delivered her ruling on a no case submission in the extortion and bribery trial of former PLP Senator Frank Smith.

Smith, the former chairman of the Public Hospitals Authority (PHA), was accused of demanding and receiving $60,000 from Barbara Hanna from 2016 to 2017, after allegedly helping her company win the contract to clean the Critical Care Block of Princess Margaret Hospital.

Ferguson-Pratt ruled that there was “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” and dismissed the charges.

She further commented on the peculiarities of the involvement of Minister of National Security Marvin Dames and Minister of Health Dr. Duane Sands.

In his testimony last September, Sands said that Hanna donated $300 to his election campaign, that her son volunteered in the campaign and that she eventually confided in him that she was allegedly making monthly cash payments of $5,000 to Smith and wanted his help.

Sands said Hanna, in 2017, kept calling him about the matter and told him that she was afraid to tell the police.

He said he eventually reached out to Dames and sent, via WhatsApp, Dames’ contact to Hanna and vice versa.

Sands was called to testify about a second contract that he awarded to Hanna, one that was done without the approval of the PHA, three months after Smith was charged.

Hanna was awarded a second contract in 2017, valued at $1.8 million.

It was revealed in court that Sands approved the second contract for Hanna, following a recommendation from PHA’s tender analysis committee and a legal opinion from the Office of the Attorney General.

Dames testified that, as a result of the referral from Sands, he met with Hanna at his constituency office and referred her to the police.

In her ruling, Ferguson-Pratt said, “The procedure that was adopted in this case, as revealed by the evidence, in my view, was wholly inappropriate, to state it mildly.

“A serving member of Parliament and Cabinet minister entertained a citizen who had previously given him campaign money, on his admission. That was said under oath.

“Added to this, the citizen had a pending application before the PHA and on the evidence, he awarded her the contract and not the board.

“The Cabinet minister then spoke to his colleague, that is the minister responsible for national security. This minister has the responsibility for the police who inter alia are charged with the investigating of crimes.

“Leading counsel for the crown asserted that the minister may have, and I quote, ‘found a more discreet venue to meet with the virtual complainant other than his constituency office’. No doubt admitting that this conduct raises the appearance of a political flavor to a curious bystander.

“The conduct of the minister responsible for the police agreeing to meet the complainant, instead of directing his colleague to refer the complaint to the commissioner of police, is unorthodox, to say the least.

“I sit as a judicial officer. I call it as I see it.”

Fair treatment

The opposition immediately called for Dames and Sands to resign or be fired. Opposition parliamentarians also boycotted Parliament.

Both ministers have responded. Dames said the calls were “comical” and added that his “conscience is clear”.

Sands said, “In terms of a call for my resignation, the devil is a liar.”

Minnis’ only comment on the resignation calls was that, “The PLP can ask for anything. That’s their job. They are opposition.

“They are to oppose everything with sense. But I’ll display that some things they say do not have sense.

“So for those who listen to us on Friday, they would hear.”

On Friday, Minnis deflected.

He spoke of the “corrupt PLP” and how he laughed when PLP Leader Philip Brave Davis said he doesn’t support corruption.

Minnis said, “Of course, the PLPs still believe they are above the law. The only rule they like is to rule you and your family.”

It is not unusual for the prime minister to deflect or ignore an issue. It’s what he does when backed into a corner. But that tactic doesn’t work when you are the leader of a country.

Bahamians, especially in 2019, are not so easily swayed.

It is safe to conclude that had this occurred under the PLP, had two PLP Cabinet ministers been lambasted by a magistrate, Minnis would have also called for dismissals and or resignations and may have also boycotted Parliament.

It doesn’t help that some of the prime minister’s own party members are calling him out.

In what surprised no one, Pineridge MP Frederick McAlpine launched a full-on attack on his leader.

“If you tell the people that you’re going to do something, then people expect to hear from you,” McAlpine said in a press conference on Monday.

“The Bahamas is waiting to hear the prime minister’s take on what the chief magistrate had to say concerning his ministers concerning the trial of corruption that was held as it pertains to the Frank Smith case.”

He added, “Whether they should resign or not, the reality is that [in] any other Commonwealth country where the Westminster system is practiced, if a judge would’ve given a scathing report or damnation upon a Cabinet minister then it is the responsibility of the leader, which is the prime minister, to at least tell the public his views based on what was said.”

McAlpine did not attend the Friday event. He told us that he had a prior engagement. Perhaps he had plans to attend a PLP event that was scheduled that same night on Grand Bahama but was later canceled.

McAlpine has called for the fair treatment of all MPs.

A similar call was made recently by Vaughn Miller, the Golden Isles MP, who was fired from his position as a parliamentary secretary last year by the prime minister after he voted against the government’s plan to raise value-added tax.

Minnis also fired Bains and Grants Town MP Travis Robinson, who was also a parliamentary secretary, and McAlpine from his post as chairman of the hotel corporation for also voting against the measure.

Minnis said he took the action in line with Westminster principles.

The prime minister’s decision to ignore the magistrate’s criticisms of his ministers’ actions is telling. It shows that he is not serious in his contention to have zero tolerance for questionable behavior.

His efforts to turn the focus on the PLP are played out and reflect an obvious and desperate attempt at changing the conversation to PLP missteps.

Bahamians know what they rejected when they voted against the PLP, but many are disappointed over what they now have after supporting Minnis, who promised to usher in a new and even-handed standard in office.

The shoe is now on the other foot and his words in many respects have proven to be nothing more than bluster and empty electioneering rhetoric.

Travis Cartwright-Carroll

Assistant Editor at The Nassau Guardian
Travis Cartwright-Carroll is the assistant editor. He covers a wide range of national issues. He joined The Nassau Guardian in 2011 as a copy editor before shifting to reporting. He was promoted to assistant news editor in December 2018.
Education: College of The Bahamas, English

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