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Raffique Shah


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Society steeped in corruption

By Raffique Shah
January 16, 2019

Sometime in 2017, I wrote a column in which I counselled Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley to refrain from hurling allegations of corruption against ministers and senior officials of the People's Partnership Government unless or until such time as some them have been charged with serious corruption-related criminal offences.

By then, I had reasoned, most citizens had grown fed up with such allegations being made by parties in power and those in opposition, with no proof produced as they exchanged places every five years from 1986 when the People's National Movement was first voted out of office after a 30-year grip on power. The average person knew or believed there was rampant corruption involving PNM ministers, and the overwhelming vote they gave the National Alliance for Reconstruction was fuelled by expectations that they would finally see "big sawatees" hauled before the courts in handcuffs, with many of the crooks ending up behind bars like the common criminals they were.

Disappointment was all they got.

True, PNM chairman Boysie Prevatt and his partner-in-crime John Ou Wai fled to Panama, a country with which we had no extradition treaty. In fact, the only casualty from the 30-year reign of the ousted regime was the already deceased John O'Halloran, whose estate located in Canada, was taken before a court in that jurisdiction, found guilty of stealing from the public purse, and ordered to compensate the Trinidad & Tobago government a few million dollars.

Not another politician or public official from among the thousands who looted the public purse and flaunted their ill-gotten gains was ever charged with malfeasance. And had the O'Halloran matter been brought before a local court, chances are he too might have escaped unscathed—or likelier, have his matter still pending, 30-odd years later.

Being fair to the Ray Robinson-led NAR government, there were few allegations of corruption against its members. But bear in mind its stewardship coincided with the first post-independence recession, so there was little to steal. By 1991, when the Patrick Manning-led PNM returned to power and the IMF-imposed austerity measures brought about an uptick in the economy, one heard stories of small-scale stealing. By 1995, when Basdeo Panday's United National Congress rode to power in a coalition with Robinson's NAR, and the economy improved based on better energy prices, the floodgates of corruption were rent asunder by an avalanche of feral greed.

Before I go further, let me dispel a myth that Panday's minions have peddled for so many years, they actually believe it: that WTI crude fetched US $9 per barrel, and magician Panday "ran the country successfully on that (low) price". Oil may have dipped to that price a few times in 1998. But here are the actual average annual prices: 1995-US $18.42; 1996-$22.16; 1997-$20.61; 1998-$14.30; 1999-$19.31; 2000-$30.26; and 2001-$25.90.

Panday's reign was reminiscent of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Greedy financiers, facilitated by corrupt public officials, looted the Treasury with abandon. Tens of millions of dollars, maybe more, were siphoned from projects such as the new Piarco Airport terminal. In a wave of nepotism hitherto unknown, huge contracts were awarded to associates of senior politicians for projects that the country did not need, and where vital infrastructural works were commissioned, the prices included hefty commissions to politicians and senior public officials.

So shameless and reckless were those who shared in the spoils of office, simple investigations conducted by the police fraud squad and anti-corruption bureau led to the arrests of some very prominent persons, with criminal charges laid against them. In the same investigations, but this time in the USA, three contractors from Florida were charged with bid-rigging and related offences (around 2005). They pleaded guilty, were fined hefty sums, and jailed for a few years.

As if that episode was not scandalous enough, Panday was hauled before the courts based on charges initiated by the Integrity Commission for failing to declare a bank account he held in London, UK. He claimed to have known nothing about the money or account, saying that his wife "handled such matters". To add another dimension to just how boldfaced our public officials are, CL Financial's head Lawrence Duprey admitted to have "donated" a significant sum to the Pandays for their children's education in the UK.

Ex-PM Panday was later exonerated by a court here, not for his innocence, but because the Integrity Commission seemed to have unfairly targeted him. Bear in mind, too, that the Piarco accused, 15 years after they were charged for corruption in relation to a project that was completed 20 years ago, are still a long way from trial in a local justice system that seems frozen in time.

Fast-forwarding to more recent governments and allegations of corruption associated with them, no one fingered in Manning's second and third stints in office (2002-2007, 2007-2010) has faced criminal charges for corruption-related offences, although the Kamla Persad-Bissessar-led PP government did file civil suits against several bureaucrats and state-enterprises directors, all of which, I believe, have floundered.

And except for charges laid by the police against ex-Attorney General Anand Ramlogan, three years after they were voted out of office, no other PP ex-minister or senior official has been arrested and charged with any criminal offence. All we hear are innuendos from the PM, AG Faris Al Rawi and Minister Stuart Young that "something" will happen soon.

I shan't be surprised if nothing happens. Further, even if some senior PP officials are charged before the next local and general elections, it won't make a difference with their supporters. Most of these latter openly say "better the crook (thieving PP) than the mook (non-performing PNM)".

Hell, an indicator of just how this society has degenerated, how morality has dissipated in the fog of political mud-wrestling, consider the Jack Warner-led clamour for the return to the ring of Panday Baba and his however-many bandits.

We reach.

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