September 23, 2001
By Raffique Shah
(With apologies to V.S.)
SOMETIME after he had served a jail sentence for corruptly receiving a huge bribe in a matter that came before him, disgraced ex-magistrate Patrick Jaggasar said, "I was a fool to have taken a bribe-and with cheque at that!" (or something to that effect). Today, as the nation sits enthralled, watching a debate on the 2001-2002 Budget turn into a circus-like expose of scandals supreme, including a thus far unexplained cheque made out to Prime Minister Basdeo Panday for US $50,000, I am reminded of Jagassar's famous last words.
It's not that I believe that Panday is a petty thief: after all, which Prime Minister worth his premium scotch would stupidly spirit away a petty TT $300,000? That's the kind of cash lowly "10 days" officials are infamous for stealing. Hell, even the NWRHA officers who had cheques made out in their names, suspiciously on the eve of the election (as if someone wasn't sure he'd be returning to office the day after the election), went boldly after $1.6 million. The money was later (again, suspiciously) repaid into the RHA's account, for which UNC Senator Dr Tim Gopeesingh has taken credit.
Interestingly, it was Gopeesingh (again!) who admitted that it was his liaison office that made out in the PM's name. He is quoted as saying that the money came from fund-raising efforts in the USA and "we raised funds specifically for the PM to use in his discretion for the 2000 general election campaign". Now, there's an explanation that must have put Rowley in his place, especially after Gopeesingh added: "He (Rowley) is just envious the PNM can't raise funding."
Surely, if 307,000 voters, as Panday repeatedly reminds us, have confidence in the UNC as a party to run a government that sits atop annual revenues of close to $20 billion, then what's a paltry $300,000 in the hands of the leader? Or what's wrong with the funds being allocated for the "leader's discretion"? I am sure there's some section of the UNC constitution that allows such privilege to its maximum leader. Which probably explains why Panday jealously guards that office and deals harshly with anyone else who aspires to it.
If, however, Rowley's exposure of the bound-to-be-explained cheque raised the temperature in the House of Representatives, it was Opposition Leader Patrick Manning's display of photographs of a house (flat, as Londoners call such mansions) in the upscale Kensington district of London that seemed to have irked Panday most. The PM sat stony faced, pretending to be scribbling as Manning revealed scanty details of the $12 million mansion. Manning further asked Finance Minister Gerald Yet Ming to institute a probe to find out who owns the property, and presumably, who lives in it.
I thought that Panday would have had a keen interest in finding out which of his ministers was allegedly going above his head, in more ways than one, by acquiring such an expensive property. Hell, if the best the PM can afford on his petty salary is a well-appointed house in Bryan's Gate, Trinidad, the question that must be bugging Bas is: which minister bought or rented that property? It's an affront to the PM, even if the person can afford it. Carlos John's name came to mind, but I know, good businessman that he is, Carlos sees Florida, not London, as the property centre of the developed world.
But for reasons unknown, Manning seemed to have struck a raw nerve when he alluded to the mystery house. Panday, questioned by journalists outside the Chamber, dared Manning to repeat his allegations outside the House (which I believe the Opposition Leader did). And the next day, inside the Chamber, he oozed venom as he accused Manning of "attacking my children". Now, I didn't hear Manning say, even under protection of Parliament, that Panday owned the house or that his children lived in it. Why, therefore, was the Prime Minister so upset?
The answer lies in the cesspool of corruption that Panday has found himself swimming in, a maze of deals and double-dealing that has come to haunt his government in a manner no other government in our short history has been. Dr Eric Williams presided over one of the most corrupt regime between 1960-80, during which time some of his closest aides were fingered as having stolen millions of dollars from public funds. John O'Halloran, the most notorious of his thieving ministers, was eventually exposed when the NAR government instituted a probe in 1988-90. Boysie Prevatt and a few of his accomplices fled to Panama to escape possible jail.
But through it all, no one ever pointed a finger at Williams. No one produced any questionable cheque with his name as the payee, and although he was Oxonian-to-the-bone, he was never accused of owning any property in England. Indeed, it is to his credit that his daughter, Erica, has lived a normal middle class life in Florida since he died in 1981. She certainly is no "Baby Doc". George Chambers, who succeeded Eric, and Ray Robinson and Patrick Manning who followed, were never tainted with the corruption brush.
Panday's government, though, has been mired in filth almost from the day it was installed in office (remember, the Cherokee Jeep scandal occurred months after Panday became PM). Too much has been written on this subject for me to labour on the pillage of the public purse by people inside the Cabinet, and even more brazenly, by those on the outside. What is worse, unlike O'Halloran, who seemed to have been a "smart thief" (it took a firm of top investigators to uncover a small slice of his ill-gotten gains), this lot, like ex-magistrate Jagassar, are either stupid or they couldn't care. Which is why they are leaving paper trails that are painted in fluorescent colours.
So the Budget debate, which ought to have focussed on matters of national and international importance, has turned into a bar-room brawl over "who t'ief what" and "who should be in jail, not in Parliament". And at the center of it all sits Panday, who, for all we know, may be totally unaware of the banditry that surrounds him. You know-see no evil, hear no evil...
But I remain intrigued over that Kensington house. I think we should get to the bottom of Manning's accusations, find out the real score, as West Indians say. In any event, given Panday's colonial tutelage and mindset, maybe we taxpayers should move to acquire in London 'A House for Mr Bas-Was'.
Copyright © Raffique Shah