Thursday, Aug 22, 2019
HomeOpinionOp-EdConsider This | The many faces of corruption, pt. 1

Consider This | The many faces of corruption, pt. 1

“To oppose corruption in government is the highest obligation of patriotism.” – G.G. Edward Griffin

Two weeks ago, we published an article entitled: “Disgraceful, Mr. Prime Minister”. In that article we took the prime minister to task for comments he made during the Free National Movement’s (FNM’s) second anniversary, not so much for what was said but the venue chosen for his comments. The prime minister used the occasion at Cousin McPhee Cathedral AME Church to characterize the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) as “a party of mass corruption”.

While he was in the church pulpit, the prime minister painted the PLP as a corrupt group that believes it “owns” this country and that “for a quarter century, ruled under a cult of personality, a sense of entitlement and mass corruption and widespread victimization”.

In that article, we questioned the appropriateness of that venue for the prime minister’s politically divisive comments, which were more appropriate for an audience at an FNM political rally, not a church. We promised to return to the issue of corruption in the FNM.

Therefore, this week, we would like to Consider this… is the PLP the only political party at which charges of corruption can be justifiably leveled as the prime minister suggested?

Corruption defined

Webster’s dictionary defines “corruption” several ways: “a dishonest or illegal behavior, especially by powerful people (such as government officials) or an inducement to wrong by improper or unlawful means (such as bribery) the corruption of government officials.” A third definition is that corruption is “a departure from the original or from what is pure or correct”.

In the Bahamian context the most common connotation of corruption refers to dishonest or illegal behavior by politicians and persons engaged in public life. However, we should not lose sight of the third definition proffered by Webster: “A departure from the original or from what is pure and correct”. More about this in part two of this series.

Political corruption in The Bahamas

There is a menacing myth that has gradually seeped into our body politic, our political consciousness and our political culture, namely the origins of political corruption. The assertion is often advanced that political corruption began with the PLP and that the FNM is a political party that is devoid of corrupt practices by persons who are engaged in public life or hold public office. This myth has been persistently perpetuated by persons who have espoused a perspective that the PLP is steeped in political corruption.

When we review the historical record, an objective observer must admit, even if reluctantly, that corruption of public officials did not begin with the PLP.

In the first half of the 20th century, The Bahamas was largely controlled by a group of influential white merchants known as the “Bay Street Boys”, an appellation given to them because most of their businesses were situated on the main street in the capital city of Nassau. The Bay Street Boys dominated both the economy and the legislature, practicing a system of racial discrimination similar to apartheid, albeit neither as violent nor as brutal as the South African vintage.

The Bay Street Boys’ control over all facets of Bahamian life, economic and political, was unquestionable and complete, as evidenced by their monopolies over all major aspects of Bahamian life. They controlled the wholesale food agency businesses; consequently, anyone desirous of entering or engaging in a retail food enterprise was beholden to them.

The Bay Street Boys also controlled the liquor and tobacco businesses, the major dry-goods businesses and most of the entertainment businesses, including movie theaters, except those situated “over the hill”. The Bay Street Boys also controlled the private transportation industry, as well as the construction and building supplies sectors.

The depth of economic control abounded, and their economic influence inevitably permeated the political domain in order to safeguard their economic power. This was most evident in the general elections that were held first every seven years, and then every five years.

In 1938, there was blatant bribery of the electorate outside of the polls, right in front of police officers, to convince people to vote against Milo B. Butler in his first run for office. This nearly sparked a riot when one of Butler’s generals was arrested for protesting the situation, but ultimately led to Butler’s successful crusade for the secret ballot.

In a 1956 PLP petition to the secretary of state for the colonies, Alan Lennox-Boyd, mention was also made of how “… one member of the House of Assembly was unseated because of alleged corruption in the 1949 General Elections in the district of Crooked Island”.

In the same document, election irregularities on the part of their opponents were also documented by the PLP: “That in the most recent General Elections of 1956 no less than nine (9) of the twenty-nine (29) seats in the Hon. House of Assembly was controverted on the grounds of bribery and corruption.”

In that election of 1956, the Deputy Speaker of the House, Frank Christie, was charged with bribery in the Stipendiary and Magistrate’s Court based on evidence given by a registered voter in Cooper’s Town, Abaco.

The United Bahamian Party

The United Bahamian Party (UBP) was formed in 1958, five years after the PLP, and was led by Roland Symonette. The UBP represented the interests of the white oligarchy previously known as the Bay Street Boys.

There are well-documented instances where many cases of political corruption and gross conflicts of interest were customarily practiced by some persons in the UBP. Lynden Pindling described the rampant corruption in the UBP government to a United Nations Committee on August 23, 1965: “The ministers [of the UBP government] owned large shares in the majority of local enterprises and benefitted from government contracts, all with the tacit approval of the United Kingdom Government. For example, the [Premier] was perhaps the biggest roadbuilder in the country. The Minister of Maritime Affairs was a major supplier of lumber and hardware goods to the Government and perhaps the biggest ship-owner in the country. The Minister of Agriculture had large farming interests and supplied air-conditioning material to the Government as did the Minister of Electricity. The Minister of Finance and Tourism was head of a food chain, an insurance company and a law firm which often represented his Ministry and his clients at the same time.”

Beyond that, even grosser greediness and corruption existed, the nature and extent of which were gradually and partially revealed in the American press and through a Royal Commission investigating casino gambling concessions after the PLP came to power.

Casino gambling had always been a controversial and emotive issue, which divided the UBP, as well as the country at large. Casinos were viewed as attractive enterprises to quell the insatiable appetite of well-heeled tourists, always in search of new forms of entertainment. Casinos were equally attractive to entrepreneurs, albeit sometimes difficult to regulate, especially given the ever-watchful eye of organized crime attempting to acquire a stake in these cash-rich businesses.

A young Bahamian attorney by the name of Stafford Sands was elected to the House of Assembly and served on the Legislative Council. He served in the powerful position of chairman of the Development Board, which took a larger share of the colonial budget than even the education system, and was charged with the development of tourism and foreign investment.

There was a time when heads of government boards, later ministers, worked in their regular jobs during the day and attended the House of Assembly in the evenings, after normal working hours.

As an outstanding attorney, as well as the person in charge of the two most powerful areas in government, Stafford Sands used his political offices to fatten his professional coffers. He was instrumental in obtaining gambling licenses for several of his clients, including private clubs in Nassau and on Cat Cay, as well for hotels on Paradise Island and in Freeport-Lucaya.

An October 5, 1966, a Wall Street Journal article alleged that the Freeport gambling license had been corruptly obtained and that Mafia figures were involved in the operation of the casinos. The article explained that the Freeport casino manager was wanted in the United States for tax evasion, having previously operated an illegal bookmaking operation in New York with two associates who were also with him in Grand Bahama.

It was also alleged that Mafia kingpin Meyer Lansky was really behind the Freeport casino. In the superbly documented epic work “Islanders in the Stream”, Michael Craton and Gail Saunders recount that “a secret planning meeting had been arranged by Wallace Groves at the Fontainebleau Hotel on Miami Beach on September 26, 1961, attended by prominent Bahamians and underworld figures, and that in due course the casino license was obtained by Groves’ companies through bribing members of the Executive Council and other government figures.

“Among those named as having received princely ‘consultancy fees’ from Freeport-Lucaya were Stafford Sands and four other members of the Executive Council, the Speaker of the House of Assembly, Bobby Symonette, and the self-righteous owner-editor” of one of our daily newspapers.

On January 10, 1967, the PLP victory in the general election was closely followed by the confirmation of the corruption of certain members of the UBP, which was prominently highlighted and exposed in the report of that 1967 Royal Commission of Inquiry into casino gambling in The Bahamas.

Stafford Sands left the country for exile in Spain, along with the considerable fortune he had amassed. He never returned.

Although race was a critical issue in the 1967 general election, disclosures of UBP corruption and conflicts of interest concerning consultant fees and gambling in Freeport also became major campaign themes. Following the Dissident Eight’s departure from the PLP and creation of the Free PLP, which morphed into the Free National Movement, the UBP disbanded and was absorbed into the FNM.

Next week, we will continue to describe the many faces of corruption that occurred under the party as it transformed into the FNM.

• 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 pgalanis@gmail.com.

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