Acting Prime Minister Peter Turnquest yesterday defended St. Anne’s MP Brent Symonette following his resignation from Cabinet, insisting that there is no evidence to support claims that Symonette used his political post to obtain government contracts.
Turnquest also revealed that the move did not come as a surprise to him or his fellow Cabinet colleagues, as Symonette had previously declared that he would not stay in office past his 65th birthday.
“I would only say this, as far as I am aware, there was never any instance where former minister Symonette made any intervention or asked for any favorable consideration with respect to any project that has been awarded,” he told reporters at Government House following the swearing in of Yamacraw MP Elsworth Johnson to replace Symonette as minister of financial services, trade and industry and immigration.
“I think that is a very, very unfair label that has been put on him, it is not backed up by any shred of fact and, again, it is very unfortunate that we as a community have not grown or matured to the point where we can see successful people advancing and celebrate that success, regardless of what the background is.
“The fact of the matter is these companies employ Bahamians.
“The suggestion that because he has decided to enter public life, that his family ought to suffer, or the employees of these entities ought to suffer, I think [that] is a very disingenuous and a dangerous position for people to take.
“Again, as far as I am aware, never once has [former] Minister Symonette asked any minister or prevailed on any decision with respect to any of these contracts. They’ve won them, as far as I understand, fair and square.”
Symonette’s resignation followed public scrutiny over contracts being awarded to companies his family has an interest in.
Bahamas Hot Mix Company Ltd. was recently awarded contracts by the Water and Sewerage Corporation for work in Long Island and Crooked Island, as well as a $20 million contract for rehabilitation work on a runway and taxiway at Lynden Pindling International Airport.
His children’s trust is a shareholder in the company.
Last year, it was announced that the General Post Office would be moved to Town Centre Mall, which Symonette and his brother own majority shares in.
The optics surrounding the resignation closely mirror Symonette’s 2001 resignation from his position as Airport Authority chairman, also amid controversy over a contract awarded to Bahamas Hot Mix by the Airport Authority.
In an interview with The Nassau Guardian, Symonette rejected the rumors and insisted his decision to step down was really a simple issue.
He noted that in November of last year he advised Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis and his Cabinet colleagues that he would not stay in Cabinet a day past his 65th birthday.
He turns that age on December 2 of this year.
Turnquest said yesterday that this type of succession planning should be commended.
“I commend him for recognizing and stepping aside to give a younger minister an opportunity to contribute,” he said.
“Again, it’s unfortunate that circumstances that are unrelated are being conflated into this development, but, again, this is not a surprise.
“Those who know former Minister Symonette would have had these conversations because, as I said, personally we have had this conversation plenty times, where he has indicated that he does not intend to stay past his 65th birthday.
“He and the prime minister, as he indicated, came to an agreement that this would be the appropriate time to make the change with the new fiscal year, and, so, again I don’t think there’s anything untoward here.
“It is just following through on a commitment and a personal belief that it’s time to pass onto a new generation.”
The finance minister further thanked Symonette for his “tremendous contribution to the government of The Bahamas and the people of The Bahamas”.
“Being in public life is not easy,” Turnquest added.
“You are subject to so much unfair attacks and criticism, which I think in his case is the epitome of what can happen and is unfortunate. But be that as it may, he has remained dignified and above the fray and I think that’s to his credit and to his family’s credit.”
As for Johnson’s ability to perform in the new position, Turnquest said he has no doubt that he will rise to the challenge.
“This is a very significant portfolio in the government in that it represents 15 percent of our direct GDP, as well as a significantly greater percentage of our overall economic contribution,” he said.
“And, so, the responsibility that’s placed upon him is certainly significant but we have no doubt that he is prepared to take on that challenge and to rise to the demands of the job.
“As you know, we would have come off a year of significant and fast-paced developments.
“We’ve been successful in removing ourselves from several lists and preventing ourselves from going on several other lists.
“Together with myself, the new minister and the attorney general, we will continue to fight and make those interventions as they are necessary, both domestically and internationally, to ensure that we protect and promote the financial services industry, which is, again, so very vital to our overall economic stability and growth.”
Education: Vrije Universiteit Brussel (University of Brussels), MA in Mass Communications