Independent - March 7, 2001
By Raffique Shah
WHILE I'm in no position to question Senator Danny Montano's claim that his late son had hacked into a bank's computer and discovered an account in the name of a UNC government minister that had $12 million in it, I do have a problem with the veracity of the claim. Oh, it's not that I doubt there are ministers in the post-1995 Government who stole ten times that sum from the public purse. But I find it rather stupid for someone who's smart enough to steal $12 million to leave it lying in an account in a local bank-not in this day of off shore banking on your doorstep, a financial sewer system that serves drug barons and crooked politicians much better than Swiss banks did.
In fact, from information that I've received as a journalist (ple-e-ase, don't ask me to supply back-up documents: if they exist, off shore banks would be useless), the political bandits are as familiar with shady banks in the Isle of Man, in the Cayman Islands and the Bahamas as they are with the new Unit Trust building in Port of Spain. Much of their ill-gotten gains are siphoned from foreign companies wanting to do business here directly into such accounts. The huge sums, mostly in US and Euro currencies, never touch local soil except when we see their fruits in the forms of fleets of luxury limousines, multiple million-dollar properties, and the general Bill Gates-type lifestyles they lead on ministers' incomes.
So thieving ministers are nothing new, not under the UNC, and most definitely not under the "old PNM". Just to put the five-years-and-counting stealing spree in perspective, I need to remind readers, some of whom may be too young to remember, of what happened under PNM rule, especially during the first oil boom in the mid-1970s. I was very active in politics then, and as a Member of Parliament I was among the original ULF spokesmen who lashed out at the PNM for gross corruption. By then, Johnny O'Halloran, a bandit-turned-politician, had already feathered his nest (from as early as the gas stations racket in the 1960s: he was the minister responsible for granting licenses for new gas stations, a lucrative business).
But the oil boom brought untold wealth to the country, and bandits like O'Halloran and Boysie Prevatt saw the opportunity to steal millions of dollars, not petty thousands from gas station deals. And so it was that $100 million of taxpayers' funds were buried in the Caroni swamp in the form of tonnes of steel and concrete in the foundation for the never-to-see-daylight Caroni Racing Complex. The selected contractors, most of whom had to go through O'Halloran and Prevatt, made mas with our dollars. It was in that project that a firm called Northern Construction, owned by Ishwar Galbaransingh, first turned up. He got the contract to build a new bridge across the Caroni River. It had reached as far as earthworks by the time George Chambers called halt to what was obviously an extremely expensive misadventure. I don't know how much money Galbaransingh's firm pocketed before the project was shut down.
And so it went from the Racing Complex to the purchase of new aircraft for BWIA from McDonnell Douglas, a company that was steeped in "pay-offs" to officials mainly from developing countries. Corruption was rife in the many housing, road, sewage and other projects undertaken by the Eric Williams Government, as it was in just about everything that spelt dollars. It ran from as high as Cabinet level to the DEWD (forerunner to the URP) base where balisier foremen built their own houses with taxpayers' material and labour.
I need add at this stage that John Eckstein, a former PNM minister, challenged me to name one corrupt PNM official other than O'Halloran when I mentioned the above charges in another article. I did not respond to him then, since I found that he was either naive or just plain stupid. Let me now answer him this way: name any minister in the UNC Government who can be reasonably accused of corruption! I can see John stuttering in his shoes, knowing there are bandits in the Cabinet, but unable to name one. The shoe, John, as Crazy sang, is on the other foot!
But back to the UNC, to Danny Montano and the $12 million minister. If indeed there was such an account, it would have been temporary, a case of the bank holding the cash until it could be changed into foreign currency and transferred abroad. So that if Montano were to hack into the bank's computers today, I bet he won't find a shred of evidence to back up his charge. Prime Minister Basdeo Panday has dared him to name the minister, but he has declined-and wisely so. Because if he did, and there was no evidence to support his claim (that must have been erased from the bank's computers), he would find himself facing libel charges.
My guess is that the money he referred to, and many millions more, is safely stashed away in foreign accounts. And other than the regal lifestyle the thieves lead, the nation will only be made aware of the extent of UNC banditry when they see the opulent lifestyles of their grandchildren-which will be long after my generation has passed on. This, in turn, brings me to the Integrity Commission that Montano claimed he reported the matter to. With the greatest deference to its members, that Commission is as impotent as.....I almost called several senior ministers' names! Look at trouble! The Commission receives statements of the financial affairs of a wide range of government officials, among them all MPs and ministers.
For starters, many do not even bother to submit such statements. And if they do, do you think anyone would say: I received X million dollars from US company Y, and another XX million from Canadian company Z, the said sums now neatly ensconced in the Cayman Islands? Let's be realistic Those declarations are as absurd as the ones candidates make to the EBC after a general election in which they all swear they spent considerably less than the stipulated $50,000 during the campaign. Do any of the people who benefit from T-shirts, free rides to meetings and rallies, and cash incentives, belive that crap?
The Integrity Commission is a toothless bulldog. As Michael Williams, a former President of the Senate under the PNM Government wrote a few weeks ago, it was introduced by Eric Williams during the height of PNM corruption. But no sooner had it been put on the statute books than the same PNM Government circumvented the already secret Central Tenders Board by adding Nipdec to the government bodies that dealt with million-dollar contracts. The UNC has since added Tidco, MTS and Undecott to government-controlled bodies that have the power to spend hundreds of millions of dollars without having to account to the public or anyone else. It's a thief's paradise, really.
As Williams (M) put it, "We put in place an honour system to apprehend dishonourable people..." So the $12 million minister has already secured his loot in some foreign, off-shore bank, and he will never be caught. Nor will we ever be able to prove that the Kensington, London mansion that a senior politician hopes to retire to, was "donated" to him by foreign company that has huge investments here. Tough luck, Senator Montano. But there is something in Hinduism called "Karma". Find out about it. It's akin to a "spirit lash". And when it strikes at the thieves and their families, even those who know of their wicked ways will feel sorry for them. Then, not even the $12 million or whatever loot they have stolen will be of any use to them.
Copyright © Raffique Shah