Erosion of trust    

 Resignations from the Minnis Cabinet are not simply par for the course

In what appears to be an attempt at spin over the departure of four ministers from the Minnis Cabinet this term, a narrative has emerged in some quarters that the resignations ought to be viewed through the lens of the prime minister’s previous declarations that he would get rid of ministers who are guilty of wrongdoing.

It is a somewhat crafty argument, but one that would be accepted only if individuals take a decidedly lazy approach to examining the known particulars of each resignation, as well as irregularities and common threads of occurrence in each case.

What is closer to accurate is that resignations this term have done little to paint the prime minister as a leader who means business, and have instead done more to erode confidence in the prime minister’s leadership, his administration, and the manner in which he deals with his Cabinet colleagues.

Brent Symonette

Being a politician who is the son of a former United Bahamian Party (UBP) premier, and who is one of the wealthiest “non-Black” businessmen in The Bahamas with interests spanning several sectors, Brent Symonette cannot easily escape suspicion and resentment regarding his influence and his motives in office.

Some opinions of Symonette may be fair. Others are not, when they are primarily based on who his father is, what color he is perceived to be, and what both are thought to mean for his ability to acquire and grow wealth.

The man who has served his country at the Cabinet level under two Free National Movement (FNM) prime ministers, and who continues to serve his constituents, has been a valuable asset to his party beyond the wealth for which he is often almost unilaterally defined.

Still, there is much that comes with being a Symonette in Bahamian politics, and this reality is one that both he and Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis had to have recognized when the now infamous Town Centre Mall arrangement was taking shape.

The history of government seeking to become a tenant in the Town Centre Mall began under the previous Christie administration when Symonette was out of office.

The matter once again arose when, according to Symonette, Minnis approached him about government becoming a tenant thereof, paving the way for a resulting lease agreement to house the General Post Office.

As expected, accusations of corruption stemming from the conflict of a Cabinet minister being engaged in a government contract emerged, a conflict which from the standpoint of Symonette’s position as a member of Parliament, was resolved via a constitutionally-mandated resolution passed in Parliament.

Since the constitution does not envision a Cabinet minister being involved in a government contract, and given what even a political apprentice would have foreshadowed as a sure firestorm, it would have been best for Symonette to resign as minister, once he decided to accept the government’s offer.

Conversely, the argument can be put that Minnis ought not have sought such an arrangement with Symonette in the first place, for the same reasons.

Nevertheless, Symonette broke no existing laws by entering into the post office lease agreement, and though it may not have been an effective political point once the controversy exploded, a salient financial point made by government was that the rental rate provided, resulted in a significant savings for the public purse over the going rate for commercial lease agreements in New Providence.

According to Symonette, his resignation was not sought, but was rather of his own accord and on his own terms.

Critical thinking enables an observer to recognize that if Symonette resigned due to supposed wrongdoing, the wrongdoing would also have been principally that of the prime minister and the entire Cabinet, since Symonette could not have granted himself the post office lease.

Spin doctors ought also recognize what it would ultimately mean to suggest that Symonette had to step down, for agreeing to an arrangement that the prime minister himself recommended, and that Cabinet agreed to.

When fierce accusations of corruption and influence peddling were being levied at the St. Anne’s MP, together with the usual race-baiting that follows whenever Symonette is the subject, the prime minister went eerily quiet as opposed to rising to Symonette’s defense over the government’s deal.

Symonette’s decision to reveal that the prime minister approached him about the arrangement and not the other way around, suggested a desire on his part to clear his name against opposition suggestions that he used his influence in the Cabinet to have the post office moved to a facility he owns.

He ought not have needed to do this though, had the prime minister made the genesis of the arrangement clear from the outset.

Minnis did not deny Symonette’s revelation, and through his office stated, “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.”

It was a trite response considering that the “private discussion” at hand was in furtherance of public expenditure.

Since his resignation, Symonette has provided constructive criticism to the competent authority and the government during the ongoing state of emergency, offering advice both in and outside of Parliament that the Cabinet could have no doubt benefitted from, had its most senior member at the time chosen not to resign.

His resignation is viewed as a loss to the Cabinet, and it remains to be seen whether any residual upset such as it, may exist, will result in a loss of campaign support for the FNM as it mounts its 2022 election battle.

Duane Sands

To this day, the prime minister has not explained to the Bahamian people what supposed breach by Dr. Duane Sands led to what we now know was a resignation that was not privately sought by Minnis.

Whenever questioned by the media on the matter, Minnis would abruptly shut down the subject, refusing to submit himself to press scrutiny on what occurred.

Like the Symonette matter, Minnis’ silence was hardly golden.

In an interview with Perspective last year, Sands revealed that Minnis never indicated to him that he took issue with the importation of COVID-19 test swabs by American second-home owners, on board a flight approved by Tourism and Aviation Minister Dionisio D’Aguilar.

He also revealed that a statement he read on the number of persons on board that flight, which was later found to be inaccurate, was in fact written by the prime minister’s office, and not Sands.

Further, Sands revealed that he chose to resign after a draft resignation letter written in his name by the prime minister’s office, which he did not assent to, was floated online, prompting him to decide that it was best to leave the Minnis Cabinet.

None of Sands’ revelations were disputed by the prime minister.

Though Sands pledged and demonstrated his unwavering support of Minnis at the end of the FNM’s last convention, it was obvious the relationship between the two was cool at best.

If merely being involved in the COVID swab flight was a breach, it would stand to reason that both Sands and D’Aguilar would have fallen at the axe of accountability, but that of course did not occur.

This made it apparent to sensible observers that the proverbial axe during a critical time in the country’s pandemic response, was determined to fall on Sands, whose popularity during the first wave grew as Bahamians openly expressed confidence in his measured and competent handling of the crisis.

The loss to the country as a result of Sands’ resignation was profound, not only for the Ministry of Health, but for the country’s pandemic response.

Like Symonette, Sands has offered constructive criticism and advice since his resignation, including an admonition to government to reconsider reopening the country last July, given that the United States was in the midst of a deadly second wave.

Not only was this advice not taken, but Minnis as competent authority went further to remove the testing requirement for 72-hour travelers, and quarantines for those returning travelers were not enforced.

The result was the country’s devastating second wave that brought about an over 1,500 percent increase in deaths, thousands of new infections, and a blow to the domestic economy that has pushed recurrent deficit projections well above the comfort zone, and put unsustainable pressure on the public purse for unemployment and social assistance.

After much speculation, Sands finally received the nod last week to be his party’s standard bearer for Elizabeth in the upcoming general election.

Fairly damaging to the spin machine is the argument that Sands was made to step down for alleged wrongdoing, only to be chosen once again to run on a Minnis-led ticket.

Peter Turnquest

Turnquest has categorically denied untested fraud allegations against him, raised in a writ filed by the law firm of Hotel Corporation Chairman Michael Scott.

It is inconceivable that such weighty allegations would be raised in a writ filed by the law firm of a government appointee, without that appointee giving the prime minister a heads up about what was coming down the pike.

Nevertheless, we understand that up to the point the filing had been made public, Turnquest was not contacted by the prime minister about the matter.

When questioned, Minnis threw the onus of Turnquest’s fate to his colleagues, stating that Cabinet was deliberating the writ.

Who sits in the Cabinet is the exclusive purview of the prime minister.

Given the gravity of the unproven allegations levied at Turnquest, who is not a party to the suit arising from the writ, the appearance of impropriety would have been sufficient to make his remaining in the Cabinet untenable.

Still, when Turnquest advised of his resignation following days of public calls for the same, it was not clear whether his resignation was sought rather than voluntarily offered.

Though Turnquest maintains his innocence and vowed that he would “have more formal comments to make in regards to the circumstances of the allegations made” against him, and “the actors that have perpetuated it”, Minnis did not affirm Turnquest’s public position that his resignation was in furtherance of clearing his name.

Like Symonette and Sands, Turnquest, who represents East Grand Bahama, was also a loyal member of the Minnis Cabinet, and while in opposition, remained Minnis’ ally as he fell out of favor with most of his other caucus members.

The loss for the Cabinet and the country was that Turnquest was viewed as a competent minister of finance, one under whose tenure the Minnis administration claims credit for improved fiscal administration, and whose heavy lifting took place during back to back crises that have sent the economy into a tailspin.

FNMs on Grand Bahama and elsewhere quietly share their own suspicions about how Turnquest came to meet his political fate this term, suspicions which are quite telling about how party members view relations between their leader and his Cabinet colleagues.

Lanisha Rolle

When the prime minister, through the Cabinet Office, advised in a statement on former Youth, Sports and Culture Minister Lanisha Rolle’s resignation that “certain matters” were under investigation, it sent a message to the nation that Rolle’s departure was tied to suspicion of wrongdoing.

The unexplained reference was highly irregular for a Cabinet Office statement of its kind, as was the prime minister’s commentary since the issuance of that statement.

When Minnis came back days later to say Rolle was not involved in the investigation previously referenced, all eyes were trained on what prompted the prime minister to include in the Rolle statement, a line about matters under investigation that he now says Rolle has nothing to do with.

For those promoting the argument that Rolle’s resignation is but the latest example of the prime minister’s supposed stance on accountability, Minnis’ statement that she is not being investigated, threw a flaming wrench into that spin.

The reality is that everything Rolle is being accused of in the public domain is unsubstantiated by government thus far, and has been fed entirely by conjecture on social media that does not all appear to originate from opposition sources.

Like Turnquest, Rolle was an ally and staunch defender of Minnis, and the contents of her mysteriously leaked resignation letter are all the public has heard from her since news of her resignation surfaced.

If Rolle’s resignation is not the result of matters under investigation as Minnis now asserts, and if she is not guilty of wrongdoing in connection with a reported audit in her former ministry, at the very least it can be argued that her reputation may have suffered damage due to the Cabinet Office’s statement.

Minnis’ most recent statement to the press only heightened calls for answers on why Rolle resigned, and why her resignation was accepted.

There are those who believe that Rolle’s departure from the Cabinet does not represent the magnitude of loss as did the departures of Symonette, Sands and Turnquest, given her reported performance as minister.

That opinion, however, is shortsighted.

What is perhaps the biggest loss suffered by Rolle’s resignation is a fresh round of loss of public trust.

Unlike the resignations of Symonette, Sands and Turnquest, who all made extensive public statements seeking to set the record straight about allegations and their Cabinet departures, Rolle’s resignation is shrouded in inscrutability as well as intrigue.

The spin that these resignations are evidence of the prime minister’s commitment to accountability does not hold for the very simple fact that in each and every case, the prime minister himself has not accounted for circumstances surrounding each Cabinet departure.

Several remaining Cabinet ministers surmise that resignations will occur from time to time, which is true.

What is also true is that the resignations of Symonette, Sands, Turnquest and Rolle were not merely par for the course, and have markedly added to the progressive erosion of trust in the leadership of the Minnis administration.

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