I DID NOT KISS HARRY
By Andre Bagoo Tuesday, October 23 2012
FORMER Finance Minister Karen Nunez-Tesheira yesterday dismissed a claim that she once kissed and hugged up former Hindu Credit Union (HCU) president Harry Harnarine at an insurance conference in South Africa in 2000, but at the same time admitted to receiving something else from Harnarine – HCU cash to help fund her 2007 election campaign.
The former D’Abadie/O’meara MP said “everybody knew” that the HCU contributed campaign funds to help her bid to win the seat in the November 2007 general election after she was plucked out of academic life by then PNM political leader Patrick Manning to contest the newly-formed seat.
Nunez-Tesheira also told the Colman Inquiry that a few months later she was instructed to see if she could provide “assistance” to the troubled HCU in a telephone call from then Prime Minister Manning, after apparent lobbying from Harnarine.
But Nunez-Tesheira said she was determined not to seem to be providing favours to a political financier. The State would only intervene if it could be sure the 2008 problems at HCU related to liquidity issues and not questions of poor management practice and ethical concerns. This, regardless of the fact that hundreds of thousands of people had life savings in the institution.
“The HCU assisted me in my campaign,” Nunez-Tesheira disclosed at the second-floor courtroom of the Winsure Building, Port-of-Spain. “And I didn’t want anyone to ever say that that could influence my decision-making. I do not know if Mr Harnarine felt that when he came in to see me that it was a fait accompli or done deal; that I was going to ignore all the rules of transparency and accountability; that because he helped me in my campaign that it was payback time and I would help and agree to that.”
Attorney for the Ministry of Finance Jagdeo Singh asked Nunez-Tesheira if she disclosed this funding to any of the committees she sat on which deliberated on the HCU issue.
SINGH: “At the time when the discussions for bailout took place did you disclose that to the Policy Formulation Committee? That you had received campaign contributions?”
NUNEZ-TESHIERA: “To whom?”
SINGH: “To, for example, Former Minister in the Ministry of Finance Senator Mariano Browne?”
NUNEZ-TESHEIRA: “Everybody knew that the HCU was in D’Abadie/Omeara. It was in other constituencies. Everybody knew that. I don’t understand. What is the point of that question? Not all politicians pay back their financiers. Not all of them.”
SINGH: “No, Mrs Tesheira.”
NUNEZ-TESHEIRA: “Some of us do, not all politicians do. It is my view that when Mr Harnarine came to me in that first meeting, he was very surprised that I had a permanent secretary there. I saw that on his face. He never met with me without a permanent secretary there or a deputy. Never. Probably he thought I was naive or he thought I was under some instruction to do something – which he was very mistaken about if that was the case. Every time he called me I knew that he was taping my conversations. I knew it because I saw it. That was the measure of the man and I was very careful.”
Nunez-Tesheira gave details of a phone-call she got from Manning around April 8, 2008.
“He said see what you can do to assist,” she said. “He gave me no instructions. If the conversation lasted three minutes it lasted three minutes. There were no explicit instructions there was only a requirement to meet with Mr Harnarine.”
Though Nunez-Tesheira was adamant that she was under no “instruction” to assist the HCU, at the same time she admitted that Manning seemed to demonstrate an unusual interest in the matter.
“The government absolutely wanted to help the credit union,” she said. “Consider the fact that the Prime Minister could call me and tell me – he does not do that. He did not only call me once. He followed up on the matter and I know personally that he really wanted us to help the credit union. I can say that without contradiction. But my responsibility as the minister was to make sure that we did it in a transparent and accountable way.”
She noted that former Udecott chairman Calder Hart – who was closely associated with Manning – offered to get Udecott to purchase the $40 million HCU “Twin Towers” real estate project at Chaguanas.
But while she showed Harnarine a cold shoulder in 2008, things were different in 2000, according to a claim made by Harnarine’s attorney Farid Scoon, prompting Nunez-Tesheira to appeal to inquiry chairman Sir Anthony Colman.
SCOON: “Mr Harnarine found your lost bag in South Africa when you were on a trip and you hugged him up and kissed him!”
NUNEZ-TESHEIRA: “I never! Oh my! Mr Chairman? Mr Chairman? Mr Chairman, please? We cannot go forward because that is not true. No. No. I am going to correct the record. It is just like Mr Harnarine says in his witness statement where he said he had (a certain) conversation with me. I said to myself, ‘I never met this man on December 2.’ If I did not know myself better – the bag that he is saying was lost was not my bag. Was not my bag. I never lost a bag. Someone else’s bag was stolen when they were in Johannesburg. Mr Harnarine never got my bag. Mr Harnarine has a very – and I am being kind – vivid imagination.”
Harnarine once worked for Clico, where Nunez-Tesheira’s husband, Russell, was a well-known executive. Sources yesterday said Clico members attended an insurance conference in South Africa in 2000.
Nunez-Tesheira could not recall personally calling on Harnarine for 2007 campaign support. She stated this might have been done by a campaign manager. She could not rule out meeting Harnarine personally in relation to her campaign. This, after Scoon questioned her about a paragraph of her witness affidavit.
“I must draw to the Commission’s attention, that the HCU was among those persons or entities who or which contributed to my campaign for the newly-created seat of D’Abadie/O’meara in 2007,” Nunez-Tesheira says in the statement. “I met with members of the HCU in that regard and Mr Harnarine may have been among those persons.”
SCOON: “You say that Mr Harnarine may or may not have been at those meetings?”
NUNEZ-TESHEIRA: “I can’t remember I don’t want to say he wasn’t there and then he was there and it appears that I was not speaking the truth.”
SCOON: “In fact, Mr Harnarine never met you in connection with your 2007 campaign.”
NUNEZ-TESHEIRA: “Well there you are. I just wanted to be very careful about that. I would agree with that now that he confirms it because I could not remember.”
SCOON: “You called him, you asked for assistance?”
NUNEZ-TESHEIRA: “I can’t remember but I had a campaign manager. My campaign manager may have been involved.”
SCOON: “The esteemed law professor who was trying to get into government called Mr Harnarine and said, ‘look! help!’ because you knew him from before.”
NUNEZ-TESHEIRA: “I knew Mr Harnarine? Do you know how silly that is? That would mean that everybody that I know in a professional level at the (Hugh Wooding Law School where she taught) my husband knew them. That’s ridiculous! I did not know Mr Harnarine. You cannot tell me I knew Mr Harnarine.”
In 2007, Nunez-Tesheira – then a political unknown – won the D’Abadie/O’mera seat comfortably with 8,875 of the 14,995 votes cast, topping votes for the UNC and COP combined (6,120). She lost the seat in 2010 to the COP’s Anil Roberts after an early election called by Manning, after a tenure which saw her reportedly spar privately with PNM treasurer Andre Monteil and then a subsequent conflict of interest scandal which saw her being accused of presiding over the Clico bailout while having interests in the company, as well as allegations of insider trading.
The Ken Gordon-chaired Integrity Commission later found she had not violated regulations under the Integrity in Public Life Act. Nunez-Tesheira has told the Colman Inquiry that her husband was mistreated by Clico and she wanted nothing to do with the company after his death in 2004.
Nunez-Tesheira’s evidence yesterday gave the impression of a Minister of Finance who was not always fully aware of the developments in relation to bailout talks for the HCU. She stated she was not in charge since the issue was for the Ministry of Labour. She also said she was not present at a meeting on April 8, 2008, when a request for a $71 million loan was made by the HCU. She said she got to the meeting late. She also said she had to make a five-day trip to Dubai – in relation to the PNM’s move to set up an International Financial Centre– in the middle of talks and was briefed by Browne when she returned. Browne had been Acting Finance Minister in her absence.
The former Finance Minister yesterday admitted the HCU was like Clico, the insurance giant the State would bail out months after refusing to help the HCU. “It reminded me of Clico,” she said. Nunez-Tesheira said the State could not engage in rescuing HCU because Harnarine could not be trusted.
“How do you put money into a company that was not only insolvent but the persons involved simply could not tell you the truth,” she said, noting that several assets Harnarine had said could have been used to guarantee a $71 million loan were encumbered. Of Harnarine, she said, “I must say, he is a very convincing person if you don’t know otherwise.”
Asked by Singh if the State could not have simply funded a bailout on the condition that Harnarine step aside, Nunez-Tesheira said, “Hindsight is nice. I think you have to know there were a lot of time constraints under which the ministry and government were operating. I am not the line minister for labour. My role was simply to see in what way the government could assist.”
Nunez-Tesheira said “a lot” of the more than100,000 persons with funds in the HCU were “cane farmers” and had “humble beginnings” and the government was aware of this and “really wanted” to assist.
“While some of them may have been wealthy persons there were a lot of them who were cane farmers with life savings, from humble beginnings and from a governmental perspective you are not only interested in economics you are also interested in the welfare of the people,” she said.
At the same time she said the State could not pump money into an institution which was poorly governed.
“It is not my money. It is the people of Trinidad and Tobago’s money and that would be put down a deep hole. I could not do that,” she said. “There was a great concern about time constraints.” She said the HCU collapse, which came after at least a decade of lax regulation according to evidence heard at the inquiry, was due to political mischief.
“I have reason to believe there was some truth in it,” she said of Harnarine’s claim that the downfall of the HCU was due to politics.