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Legislating honesty

Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis speaks addresses a crowd of FNM supporters. FILE

When former PLP Cabinet minister Shane Gibson was interviewed by lead investigator ASP Debra Thompson at the Central Detective Unit on August 2, 2017, he vigorously denied allegations of bribery, insisting that contractor Jonathan Ash — whom he had been accused of collecting bribes from — had wanted to see the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) win the next election.

“He asked me the names of candidates that he should give donations [to],” said Gibson in the recorded police interview showed to jurors in his trial last month.

“Nothing had to do with any personal benefit.”

Gibson had been accused of demanding $250,000 from Ash in order to approve the payment of upwards of $1 million owed to him by the government for work associated with cleanup after Hurricane Matthew in October 2016.

Jurors were not convinced that Gibson demanded or accepted any bribes, and so they acquitted him in what the PLP marked as a tremendous legal and political victory.

On June 21, 2017, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis told Parliament the payments made to Ash by the PLP government were “shocking”.

“Ash collected three, four checks in a day, while people can’t collect overtime pay and can’t get allowance and stuff,” Minnis said. “Ash must have had contacts somewhere.”

Weeks later, Gibson was brought to court on bribery and extortion charges with Ash as the prosecution’s principal witness.

Gibson’s former colleague, Frank Smith, the former PLP senator, had also been made to do the walk of shame to court months after the Free National Movement (FNM) came to office with its anti-corruption agenda.

Smith, former Public Hospitals Authority (PHA) chairman, was accused of accepting bribes from Barbara Hanna after he helped her business secure a half million-dollar contract to clean the Critical Care Block at Princess Margaret Hospital (PMH).

But Chief Magistrate Joyann Ferguson-Pratt acquitted Smith, determining that his accuser was an unreliable witness.

Some observers of Smith’s trial had been alarmed to hear that Hanna had been awarded an even bigger contract with the PHA after criminal charges were brought against Smith.

And eyebrows were raised when Minister of Health Dr. Duane Sands admitted during the course of the trial that Hanna donated to his political campaign and her son worked on that campaign.

In our political system, there are no controls on who donates and no guidelines on those donations.

And notwithstanding commitments made by some political leaders to address the issue of money in politics, it has never been an issue that has received any serious attention.

The two corruption cases held this year have highlighted various matters — the conduct of police in such investigations, the conduct of Cabinet ministers and how they interact with witnesses, the use of money to win elections and the process of contract awards.

Promises

Money in politics and what to do about it is not a new issue.

While the Minnis administration has sought convictions of political opponents, it has not had the same zeal in pushing through campaign finance legislation or anti-corruption legislation, which were both repeatedly promised in the lead up to the last general election.

In opposition, Minnis said Bahamians can be assured that he would implement a campaign finance law if he becomes prime minister “so people could have a completely transparent process and we could end the possibility of a government being manipulated and controlled by its financial backers”.

A year ago, he said legislation to regulate campaign finances will be implemented before the end of this term.

“My five years ain’t up yet and you [will] promise me another five years,” the prime minister said. “So I have five years to put in the campaign finance reform, and I have another five years for you to see it working properly.”

A few weeks later in January, Attorney General Carl Bethel said the government was readying its first draft of a campaign finance bill for public consultation, with detailed revisions expected to begin the following week.

But coming up on a year later, no bill has been brought to the public.

Such a bill was also promised many times by Minnis’ predecessor, Perry Christie.

In its campaign document “Our Plan”, released ahead of the 2002 general election, the PLP pledged to bring legislation to address the issue.

“We believe it goes to the question of ensuring that there’s integrity in the process,” said Raynard Rigby in 2006, when he was chairman of the party, “ensuring that there is accountability, and at the end of the day ensuring that we maintain a system of election that is always fair and transparent.”

Again, the PLP did nothing to address the issue.

After his government became mired in scandal in 2004 involving election contributions from controversial businessman Mohammed Harajchi ahead of the 2002 general election,  Christie promised he would provide a full and accurate accounting of Harajchi’s donations to the PLP. Of course, he never did.

When he was voted out of office in 2007, he claimed the PLP was outspent by the FNM and that was the main reason for the loss.

Over the years, both major political parties have accused each other of being swayed by wealthy donors.

But the PLP and the FNM both live in glass houses when it comes to campaign contributions, as noted in a 2003 cable by a U.S. diplomat.

“As one Cabinet minister observed, there are no controls or limits, other than the conscience of the politician,” the diplomat wrote.

“In addition, money can come from any source, including international donors.”

The cable said millions of dollars were obtained from “questionable sources” in the 2002 campaign.

In Christie’s last term, the issue arose again after controversial Lyford Cay resident Peter Nygard claimed to be a major financial backer of the PLP. Several PLP Cabinet ministers were caught on camera gleefully visiting Nygard’s estate shortly after the 2012 election. Another video showed Nygard declaring “we got our country back” on the night of the election.

The late Paul L. Adderley, who co-chaired the Constitutional Review Commission established under the first Christie administration, had recommended that Parliament prescribe controls and limits over donations to political parties, candidates and political campaign expenditure to ensure transparency and accountability in local and national elections and fairness in referenda.

A bill to govern money in politics that was drafted nearly four decades ago under the Pindling administration was dead on arrival.

The comprehensive proposed act “to make provision for the registration of political parties; for the regulation and control of political contributions; for the public funding of elections and for other purposes incidental thereto and connected therewith” never made it to the halls of Parliament.

While Christie and Minnis both promised campaign finance legislation, former Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham took a different view.

Ingraham said he would have no difficulty “whatsoever” disclosing the source of his funding. But in 2011, Ingraham pointed out that those countries that do have campaign finance laws have found them to be “very ineffective”.

“What they spend on elections in the United States is unbelievable and they have campaign finance laws. You cannot legislate honesty. The dishonest would be dishonest no matter what you do,” he said.

With the Minnis administration now into the second half of its term, it would be surprising if campaign finance legislation ever becomes reality.

Anti-corruption legislation 

In October 2017, the government did introduce the Integrity Commission Bill to the House to deal strongly with corruption in public life, but no debate ever took place.

The proposed groundbreaking legislation comprehensively details acts of corruption, including the behavior of public officials with respect to the award of contracts and soliciting or accepting any personal benefit or providing an advantage for another person by doing an act or omitting to do an act in the performance of his or her functions as a public official.

We would also be surprised if this bill is passed this term.

Like campaign finance legislation, it is not the kind of legislation that has a chance of passing in an election year. Unless these bills get focused attention in 2020, they would likely remain shelved.

The lack of attention to strengthening the anti-corruption regime is telling given that no other buzz word resonated in the last general election campaign like “corruption”.

Voters were made to believe that someone from the outgoing Christie administration would be jailed for “stealing public funds”.

Bahamians, unsatisfied with the explanation provided by Christie on where their value-added taxes were going, had had enough and were anxious to punish their arrogant leaders for the perceived abuse of public trust.

On the campaign trail, Minnis pledged: “After winning the government, one of the first things we will do is introduce an anti-corruption bill… All money that is ill-gained will be confiscated, taken and given to you. We want to rid the country of corrupt politicians and wipe out corruption.”

The corruption messaging by Minnis and the FNM was so successful that voters soon forgot the tumultuous and unimpressive performance of the then opposition party and delivered a clean sweep at the polls.

In the months after, three former PLP politicians — Gibson, Smith and Ken Dorsett — were taken to court on various bribery and extortion charges. Gibson and Smith have been acquitted. Dorsett’s case has not yet been heard.

In his first national address as prime minister, Minnis said he was “disturbed” that some people believe politicians in The Bahamas are above the law and should not be held accountable for alleged misconduct while in office.

“It is unfair and unjust for politicians to accumulate considerable wealth from corruption, while the citizens of a country, especially the poor, are left behind,” he said. “We need a new era of public integrity and reform. This era is upon us.”

Minnis said on the sidelines of the CEO Summit of the Americas in Lima, Peru, last year that The Bahamas loses over $200 million a year due to corruption.

He never substantiated the figure.

So far, the government has been unsuccessful in proving any PLP politician was corrupt. We have not yet seen the evidence in the Dorsett case, so will not comment on that matter.

But it seems important steps in making the political system more transparent would be to begin an important conversation about the use of money in politics and get serious about legislation to strengthen our anti-corruption regime.

The only thing the FNM administration has shown in respect of these issues is that it is no different from the PLP when it comes to spewing hot air.

 

Candia Dames is the executive editor of the Nassau Guardian.
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