A revelation by former minister Brent Symonette that Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis called him directly to discuss the government’s plan to rent space at the Town Centre Mall for the General Post Office, places the Minnis administration in a “crisis of trust”, opposition leader Philip Brave Davis claimed yesterday.
Symonette recently resigned from Cabinet.
After his resignation last week, he discussed a number of controversial matters that arose during his time as minister — including the government’s decision to rent space in the mall, which is owned by him and his brother.
Referring to the direct conversation he and the prime minister had about the matter, Symonette said, “The phone rang one morning. I was in Mexico. It was early in the morning because PM and I get up early.
“PM said to me, ‘we’re going to go ahead with the lease’.
“I said, ‘PM, I can deliver it by Christmas if it’s no Rolls-Royce. We gotta reduce the size of this building. It can’t be 70,000/80,000 square feet. It has to be a Volkswagen, not a Rolls-Royce. We had that discussion.
“I said, ‘you have to deal with the whole question of conflict of interest’.
“He said, ‘we’ll do a resolution in the House of Assembly’.
“And he said, ‘what will the rent be?’ I said, ‘$12 a square foot.’
“And I came back. My partners dealt with the Ministry of Works, everything else. We pretty well did the plan that was left in place by the PLP government, except for the cafeteria upstairs and some other space.”
Symonette’s comments, which were made on the ZNS program ‘The Conversation’ with Shenique Miller last Tuesday, have been widely circulated on social media.
Last October, Symonette declared his interest in the matter and the government passed a resolution in the House to lease the space.
The resolution states, “Whereas, one of the beneficial owners of the said Town Centre Mall is a serving Cabinet minister, who did not take part in the discussions leading to the decision to accept the offer to lease portions of the building, which will be made suitable for the operations of the General Post Office at the expense of the landlord; which minister has nonetheless declared his interest.”
During debate on the resolution, Minnis said, “The member for St. Anne’s serves in my Cabinet. He declared his beneficial ownership in the Town Centre Mall. He was not allowed to participate in the discussions or the decision to lease space within the mall for the General Post Office. This is what a transparent and accountable government looks like.”
But Davis and the Progressive Liberal Party believe Symonette’s revelation that the PM called him and that they discussed the terms of the lease is direct evidence that the then minister was involved in discussions on the matter.
“It is difficult to imagine how the prime minister can continue to lead the government effectively,” Davis said in a statement yesterday.
He claimed the prime minister has lost the public’s trust.
“In a functioning government where public trust was valued, a vote of no confidence would take place,” Davis said.
“It is likely that members of the prime minister’s political party prefer to keep him in place, rather than see him resign or fall to a no-confidence vote. Many of them are putting politics, not country, first.”
Davis added, “This may be the political reality, but it does not in any way justify the unethical behavior that has led to this crisis of trust.”
Responding to questions regarding Symonette’s revelations about the phone call with Minnis, the Office of the Prime Minister said, “As a rule, the prime minister never breaches confidentiality when it comes to private discussions he has with Cabinet ministers, which he has on a daily basis.
“The assertion that the prime minister would personally and unilaterally negotiate a proposal that has spanned two administrations is nonsensical.
“The post office relocation agreement was a collective decision by the Cabinet of The Bahamas and was debated on the floor of the House of Assembly for the entire public to witness. This process was carried out in a very transparent manner. The government fully vetted every possible option and the Town Centre Mall location was the best, as even the PLP admitted.”
Minister of Transport and Local Government Renward Wells tabled the resolution on October 17.
Twenty-two MPs voted in favor of it and eight MPs, including the four opposition members and FNM MPs Travis Robinson, Frederick McAlpine, Reece Chipman and Vaughn Miller.
Eight MPs were absent during the vote and Symonette abstained.
According to Symonette, as of July 2, the lease still had not been signed because “it’s between the attorney general’s office to sort out the square footage and everything else like that”.