St. Anne’s MP Brent Symonette yesterday rejected rumors that he resigned from the Minnis Cabinet due to tensions over the award of government contracts to Bahamas Hot Mix and insisted his decision to step down was really a simple issue.
Symonette’s children’s trust is the minority shareholder in the company and there have been numerous conflicts of interest claims made against him.
Speaking to The Nassau Guardian yesterday, he strongly dismissed the perception some Bahamians have that he was in Cabinet to facilitate the further enrichment of himself and his wealthy friends.
“It’s a very simple answer,” he said when asked why he resigned.
“Dr. [Hubert] Minnis, the prime minister, and I have been talking about my future and the role of my ministry for quite some time. It started in earnest in November of last year and at that time I advised him and I advised my Cabinet colleagues numerous times that you wouldn’t find me in Cabinet a day past my 65th birthday. I’m 65 on December 2 coming, so I’m on the downward half of the year.
“I believe that younger people should take over. I always have believed that, so for me December 2 or the end of the year was an absolute, maximum outside. The prime minister and I talked and we came to the conclusion that it would be better for the new minister to start with a full budget year as opposed to coming halfway through…Hence, July 1, the beginning of the budget year.
“It’s a very simple issue. A lot of people have made a lot of nonsense out there, the people who like talking nonsense.”
Symonette, who entered frontline politics in 1987, resigned as minister of financial services, trade and industry and immigration after serving for just over two and a half years.
He said he intends to serve the full term as St. Anne’s MP and will not seek re-election. In 2012, Symonette, then the deputy prime minister, retired from frontline politics, but he said yesterday he has no plans to come out of retirement again.
He said, “[The prime minister] called me up after election and wanted to offer me the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and I said, ‘Thank you very much, Prime Minister. I don’t want to travel as much. I want to spend more time with my family…’ I spent five years of my life flying around representing the government of The Bahamas and he offered me financial services and immigration, so I took the offer.
“I’m grateful for having the honor and privilege of serving the government. This is my fourth time being appointed as a Cabinet minister, sworn in by four different governors general. It’s my third time in the House of Assembly, twice in the Senate. I started in frontline politics in 1987, so I’m approaching over 30 odd years in Parliament between both houses.
“It’s been a pleasure and an honor and I continue to do so. I’d like to thank the prime minister for the confidence he reposed in me and also Cabinet colleagues. I wish them well and I’ll continue to be a proud FNM and also fight for what is best for this country.
“One thing this time that’s going to be different; I’m going to defend my name. If the government doesn’t do it, I will do it because I’m not going to sit back and allow false, malicious propaganda such as the PLP saying they’re going to lock my children up and this low-life stuff to go without me answering. Not this time.”
Asked how he would describe his relationship with the prime minister right now, Symonette said, “Very good.”
He was also asked what the prime minister’s reaction was to his resignation.
“He understood,” Symonette said. “We had several conversations backwards and forwards. They were very pleasant and cordial. We were always discussing building the country, what we could do better for the country and it came my time to retire and so he accepted my resignation and we moved on.”
He also said, “The prime minister said to me, ‘Symonette, I don’t want you to go. I’d like you to reconsider your letter’ and I said, ‘Prime minister, this is my decision’ and he said ‘Thank you very much’ and he sent me a nice letter thanking me for my time with him and we moved on, so no tension. He would have preferred me to stay.”
Symonette said he decided to return to frontline politics because Perry Christie, the now former prime minister, was “messing up the country” and he wanted to ensure that Christie and the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) were removed from office in 2017.
Asked whether he communicated to Minnis at the time he agreed to serve as minister that he did not intend to serve a full term, Symonette said, “I may not have communicated that to the PM…I can’t say one way or the other. I don’t know.”
Symonette’s resignation, announced by the Cabinet Office on Sunday, came amid widespread discussion on the award of contracts to Bahamas Hot Mix.
The company was awarded a $20 million contract to carry out rehabilitation work on a runway and taxiway at Lynden Pindling International Airport.
Bahamas Hot Mix submitted the most competitive bid of the four companies that bid, according to officials.
The company was also awarded three contracts for water improvement projects on Long Island and Crooked Island. Public Works Minister Desmond Bannister defended the decision last week, saying the other bids were disqualified for not meeting the requirements of the Caribbean Development Bank — a determination that was made by an independent firm out of Jamaica.
Symonette insisted yesterday that none of the Bahamas Hot Mix contracts came before Cabinet for discussion. He said he had no conversations with anyone about those contracts prior to their award.
“One of them I read about in the newspaper for the first time,” he said. “The other one I talked to my son about and said, ‘Look, in the future just give me a heads up.’ So, I have no involvement in any of those contracts.”
Late last year, Symonette took a beating after the government decided to lease space in the Town Centre Mall — owned by Symonette and his brother — to relocate the General Post Office.
Declaring his interest in Parliament was not enough to quiet the controversy that accompanied that decision.
Symonette said yesterday that lies and misinformation are being spread against him on social media.
“There is one issue the PLP put out in social media and it has been dealt with before,” he told The Nassau Guardian yesterday.
“…I do not own the building that Bahamas Immigration has moved into. It’s formerly the BIS building, Bahamas Information Services. It was rented by the government before from the landlord. The landlord is known to the government and surely should be known to Mr. Brave Davis (opposition leader) and no, I do not own the building.
“The second issue they spread on social media is Bahamas Hot Mix paved Milo Butler Highway. No. That is not true. A lot of people are getting confused, but I do not forgive Mr. Brave Davis this because he was the minister responsible. Baha Mix is the government paving company. Bahamas Hot Mix or BHM is the company my family is involved in. They quite often get them [confused].”
Symonette, who is the youngest son of Sir Roland Symonette, the first premier of The Bahamas, declared a net worth of $156 million ahead of the most recent election.
These facts, along with his color, make him a lightning rod for attacks, he said, adding that there needs to be an honest national conversation about race.
“I think this country…and I think if I do nothing else I cause it to happen, has to have a discussion about race, about wealth and about politics,” he said.
“Unfortunately for me, if you want to throw in the Bay Street Boys and whatever else, rolled up in me is the epitome of everything people hate, despise, whatever word. So I’ve already received a hate call. A person calls up and says, ‘I hate you.’ I told them, ‘Ma’am, I don’t hate you. I don’t hate anyone.’ So that’s a non-issue.
“In my life, I’ve had rocks and bottles thrown at me in the political arena…I’ve had to move house one time because there was a potential kidnap. I’ve had death threats, so not much else you can throw at me that really bothers me, but that’s the background.
“My father was the first premier. He was a member of Parliament for 51 years…Yes, the PLP can say they have achieved certain things under the PLP and since black majority rule that weren’t achieved before, but let’s be honest with ourselves; things happened in all those years before.
“The PLP didn’t build every single road…so when we talk about history let’s be honest and probably you guys in the press have to be honest and let’s discuss this issue full and frank.
“My birth certificate says I’m a Bahamian. I carry a Bahamian passport, so I’m just as much Bahamian as anyone else. My mother was a Bahamian. She was sworn in. She was born a Canadian, married a Bahamian and got sworn in, so that makes me no different from (former Attorney General) Allyson Gibson or (former minister) Glenys Hanna-Martin…It doesn’t bother me because I’m the lightning rod.”
Symonette said he does not hide his wealth, but he does not publicize charity work.
“Any company I have an involvement with, on the list of shareholders my children or my wife [or myself] are fully disclosed on the front. I don’t hide behind five nominee shareholders like other people do. That’s not my style,” he said.
He repeated: “We have to deal with race.
“One of the concerns that worry me is, are the attacks on me going to send a message to other persons of my wealth, color, ethnicity, whatever words you want to use, to say there’s no role for those types of people in Bahamian society.
“And I think the race issue has gotten worse in the last two, three years in this country, as it has in America. So I think we need to deal with that.
“We also need to deal with wealth. I happen to have worked hard in my life. I’ve made some good business decisions. I’ve made some bad ones. But on the whole, my wealth has increased. Fred Mitchell (the PLP chairman) attacked me [asking] where did I get all this money from and I responded to him very easily, ‘My mother died.’”
Symonette added, “I worked very hard for a large percentage of what I owned.”
He suggested that being a millionaire does not provide him and his family comfort during attacks.
“You don’t think this hurts me, my children, my wife?” he asked.
“I’d love persons who call into these talk shows and your hosts on talk shows to come and be in our shoes for a day. I’m not too sure you guys would hold up to it.”