Given information that has recently surfaced about the leasing of the Town Centre Mall for the housing of the General Post Office, former Attorney General Alfred Sears suggested yesterday that there could be legal grounds to declare null and void the government’s resolution to enter into that lease, and to have St. Anne’s MP Brent Symonette vacate his seat in the House of Assembly.
The General Post Office was relocated to Town Centre Mall, which is owned by Symonette and his brother, in May following longstanding complaints over conditions at the former East Hill Street location.
Sears said that should the resolution be declared null and void, Symonette could be ordered by a court to vacate his seat in the House.
The resolution to lease the space was passed in the House of Assembly on October 24, 2018.
Symonette declared his interest in the property a week after the resolution was tabled in Parliament.
Sears questioned whether that disclosure should have taken place before the resolution was tabled.
Article 49 of the constitution says, “…The House of Assembly may exempt any member of the House from vacating his seat under the provisions of this sub-paragraph if that member, before becoming interested in such contract as aforesaid or as soon as practicable after becoming interested, discloses to the House the nature of such contract and his business within.”
“Under this constitutional provision, it appears that Mr. Symonette had an obligation to disclose to the House of Assembly his interest in the leasehold contract with the government before the tabling of the resolution,” Sears said.
The issue of the post office again came to the forefront in recent weeks with Symonette’s resignation from Cabinet, which he said was unrelated to conflict of interest claims concerning the post office and the award of several government contracts to Bahamas Hot Mix, a company in which Symonette’s children’s trust owns a minority share.
While Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis had insisted that Symonette was not involved in any discussions regarding the post office’s relocation to Town Centre Mall, Symonette revealed in an interview with Shenique Miller on the ZNS network on July 2 that he and the prime minister discussed the terms of the lease when Minnis called him on the matter. He did not say when the call was made, but indicated it came ahead of the government’s resolution to lease the space.
Symonette’s revelation differed from the wording of the resolution, which said that Symonette took part in no discussions surrounding the decision to lease his property.
Moreover, The Tribune reported last week that Basil McIntosh, an engineer whose company assessed the Phil’s Food store building, which was at one time being considered as a location for the post office, did not understand why the government abandoned plans to use the building. He noted that the report indicated that there were no significant structural issues with the building.
However, the resolution itself stated that the government “only recently discovered that the latent (hidden) structural defects and other technical issues would require a massive expenditure of taxpayer dollars in conducting extensive renovations to the entire building which would take at least a year or more”.
Sears said the new information raises the question of whether the House was misled.
“The question is whether, in the instant circumstances, the waiver given by the House of Assembly is vulnerable to challenge, in light of Mr. Symonette’s failure to disclose the conflict to the House himself, Mr. Symonette’s subsequent disclosures on July 2, 2019 and the reported statements by Mr. McIntosh relating to Phil’s Food Services building,” he said.
“Would the House of Assembly have considered it just to grant an exemption to Mr. Symonette had the House of Assembly been informed of Mr. Symonette’s prior discussion with the prime minister relating to the terms of the lease and the findings of Mr. Basil McIntosh relating to condition of the Phil’s Food Services building?
“Therefore, the disclosures by Mr. Brent Symonette and by Mr. Basil McIntosh have raised the following constitutional, legal and ethical issues: whether Mr. Symonette’s disclosures breached his ministerial oath and the prudential rules contained in the Cabinet Manual; whether Mr. Symonette was required to disclose the leasehold contract himself to the House of Assembly before the presentation of the resolution for exemption; whether the House of Assembly was misled by the certain representations, amongst other things, contained in the resolution and, if so, the effect of any alleged misrepresentations; and whether the speaker of the House of Assembly, a senator or any member of the House has the legal standing to make a constitutional claim, under article 49, for the Supreme Court to declare the aforesaid resolution null and void and order Mr. Symonette to vacate his seat as a member of the House of Assembly.”
Sears also called for several policy measures to be undertaken to improve government accountability and transparency.
“While these constitutional, legal and ethical issues must be addressed, there are also public policy measures which should be undertaken immediately to restore public confidence in the proper governance of The Bahamas,” he said.
“I, therefore, recommend, in the context of this current crisis, that the following public policy measures be undertaken to strengthen the systems of accountability, transparency and sound pubic administration.
“Firstly, there should be the immediate debate and passage of the Integrity [Commission] Bill, with robust criminal sanctions for abuse of public office and the public goods of The Bahamas.
“Secondly, an independent Contractor General Office, with constitutional security of tenure and independence, should be established to superintend all public procurements.
“Thirdly, all public corporations should be required, by a certain date, to establish fair and transparent procurement policies for the competitive, fair and transparent conduct, use and management of Bahamian public goods.
“These measures can stem the rapidly eroding public trust in the government and better secure the Bahamian democracy.”
Education: Virginia in Charlottesville, BA in Foreign Affairs and Spanish