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Ghosts of scandals past

By Clint Chan Tack Sunday, November 1 2009

click on pic to zoom in
Former Prime Minister Basdeo Panday...
Former Prime Minister Basdeo Panday...

AS the nation continues to follow the latest twists and turns in the ongoing saga that involves the Urban Development Corporation of Trinidad and Tobago (Udecott) and the Uff Commission of Inquiry into Udecott and the local construction industry, debate on legislation to preserve the work of the commission in Parliament two weeks ago had the result of resurrecting the ghosts of scandals which brought down governments of the People’s National Movement (PNM) and the United National Congress (UNC) at different times in the country’s history. Ghosts that still haunt both parties to this day.

Ghosts that yet again pose the threat of bringing the ruling PNM to its knees as they did in 1986, and denying the UNC any hope of returning to power as they did in successive general elections in 2002 and 2007. During debate on the Validation and Immunity from Proceedings Bill 2009 in the House of Representatives, PNM Diego Martin West MP Dr Keith Rowley declared that the corruption that was allegedly transpiring at Udecott was ten times worse than the Piarco Airport Scandal which brought the curtain crashing down on the UNC’s six years in government and exiled that party to the country’s political wilderness. Rowley claimed “strong forces” are protecting Udecott. In making this statement, Rowley brought back the infamous name of the late Johnny O’Halloran, former PNM government minister who UNC St Augustine MP Vasant Bharath would later describe in the same debate as “the high priest of bobol in the PNM”. Bharath argued that were “Johnny O” alive today, he would “blush with embarrassment” if he saw what was taking place at Udecott. In Selwyn Ryan’s book Eric Williams: The Myth and the Man, the question is asked about how much did this country’s first prime minister know about the corrupt dealings of O’Halloran while he was a member of the Williams government.

Ryan observes: “There has been a great deal of speculation as to whether Williams was involved in sleaze or merely a victim of it? The famous ‘Tesoro’ deal which followed the purchase by the Government of British Petroleum suggests that he was not a passive victim and knew more about its sordid details than he would have us believe. Let us say that in respect of this affair and others, while no spent shells were found, there were many smoking guns.”

Interestingly, O Halloran was the executor of Williams’ will. The stigma of corruption left by the ghost of “Johnny O” lingered on after Williams’ death on March 30, 1981 even though his successor, the late George Michael Chambers, sought to put things right and assure the population that corruption would not be tolerated in a PNM government headed by him.

One of Chambers’ first acts as prime minister was to halt the controversial $240 million Caroni Racing Complex in which O’Halloran had been involved and the Malabar Housing Project and reshuffling several government ministries.

“What is right, must be kept right and what is wrong, must be set right…” PM Chambers declared.

A month before the 1981 general election, Chambers publicly vowed to deal with corruption. “When I say that I mean wherever the axe will fall the man is going to get chopped…” he stated. The electorate believed him and the PNM won 26 seats in that election, including the Opposition strongholds of Caroni East and Princes Town. The PNM even made inroads into UNC Leader Basdeo Panday’s Couva North seat and the constituency of Tabaquite which is today represented in the House of Representatives by Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj who was instrumental in the fall of the UNC government. During his first months in office, then PM Chambers advised against competent and capable people remaining on the sidelines.

Buoyed by this, Chambers publicly boasted that the PNM would remain in power until 2000. This was not to be. A decline in oil fortunes in 1985, together with allegations of corruption against then party chairman the late Francis Prevatt and general disenchantment with the PNM resulted in the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) defeating the PNM in the 1986 general election by a landslide margin of 33 to 3. Manning was one of the three PNM MPs to retain their seats in the worst electoral defeat ever suffered by the PNM and it was to him that the party turned to for its political resurrection. Developments with respect to the NAR Government’s claims in Canadian courts would subsequently reveal that O’Halloran had used his office to secure bribes from companies doing business in Trinidad and Tobago. Investigations also yielded information that compromised the PNM, and indirectly, Williams. On June 4 1990, an Ontario court sustained the Government’s claims and ordered O’Halloran’s estate to pay Can$8,395,382 (TT$432 million) to the Trinidad and Tobago government and its agencies (BWIA, The Caroni Racing Complex). At the time of his death in 1985 in Canada, only US$10,000 in traveller’s cheques were found in O’Halloran’s bank account. Then-Attorney General Selwyn Richardson (now deceased), who had pursued the matter, remarked that “right must win out in the end, justice must prevail”. Then-Prime Minister Arthur NR Robinson also saw the award as “a victory, a breakthrough by a developing country seeking to recover money which had been fraudulently spirited away to a developed country”.

From even as far back as the “Johnny O” era, Canadian forensic investigator Bob Lindquist was acquainted with corruption allegations in this country. Employed with Peat Marwick at that time, Lindquist said: “It was a risk because we started out with very little. We believe that overall, the investigation and legal action that followed have been of benefit, not only in terms of the money awarded, but in terms of concluding this matter about which there have been rumours for years.” However one NAR member, Eden Shand, said he did not believe Dr Williams was directly involved in any of the corrupt dealings which were alleged to have been perpetrated by O’Halloran and others. According to Ryan’s book, Shand told Parliament: “I categorically refuse to believe that Dr Williams was a thief. He may have been involved in some sort of cover up activity, but I refuse to believe that the Father of the Nation was a thief.” Shand claimed that a PNM insider told him that “Johnny O” was the PNM’s bagman and he “divvied” up the proceeds of his illegal activities to individuals, and not to the party as such. Shand added that “If he (O”Halloran) did divvy up a share for Eric Williams, I want to believe that it was without his knowledge, for in his declaration of assets sometime in 1970, there was no sign of wealth. Several reports are floating around that indicate monies were put into accounts without his ‘knowledge’.”

Ryan also notes that several of the ministers in Williams’ Cabinet were embarrassed by his close relationship with “Johnny O.” “They simply could not understand why he was so tollerant of O’Halloran’s misdemeanours, including his open flouting of the law about game cock fighting. Indeed, when Chambers became prime minister following Williams’s death, he pledged ‘to deal with corruption. Wherever the axe falls, the man is going to be chopped.’ O’Halloran got the message. With Williams’s death, he had lost his protector. He discovered that he needed Williams as much as Williams needed him. He fled to Canada in 1982, and died there in 1985.”

Prevatt fled to Costa Rica in 1987, one year after the PNM’s electoral defeat. Others fled to Panama which led to David Rudder composing his famous calypso “Panama”. Ryan asks in his book: “Was Williams a beneficiary, wittingly or unwittingly, of O’Halloran’s largesse? Did O’Halloran compromise him by sharing his wealth as most clever operators do? If so, where did the money go? Was it only the party and its operations that he was concerned about? Was the account that the party reportedly had in Switzerland controlled by O’Halloran alone? If not, who else had access to the account? What about Francis Prevatt, the ‘heavy hitter’ chairman of the party who was widely referred to as ‘Mr Ten Percent’? Prevatt was at the end of almost every financial transaction involving the state. Why did Williams turn a blind eye to his corrupt activities?” While that debate continues, there is another debate that Panday and the UNC were guilty of the same level of corruption they accused the PNM of, when they (UNC) were in power from 1995 to 2001. The corruption scandal of the day when the UNC was in government was the Piarco Airport Development Project which basically involved the construction of a new north terminal for the Piarco International Airport in 1997. The final cost of the terminal was $1.6 billion.

When allegations of corruption first surfaced on the project, then-AG Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj directed Justice Lennox Deyalsingh to make an inquiry into the matter. The Panday Cabinet did not act on Deyalsingh’s findings which suggested there were grounds to launch an investigation. Then-PM Panday’s regular response to corruption allegations against his government was: “Where is the evidence? Take it to the police.”

Maharaj went further to hire Lindquist to probe the Piarco Project. Panday did not launch any investigation to determine whether there was any substance to corruption allegations against his ministers arising out of the Piarco Project. The only UNC minister to lose his job during the 1996 to 2001 period was Maharaj for his repeated calls for the former regime to investigate allegations of corruption being levelled against it.

Some may argue that in this regard, Maharaj shares some similarities with Rowley who said Manning fired him from the Cabinet in April 2008 because he raised concerns about a lack of oversight on Udecott’s operations. At the time, Maharaj found allies in former Cabinet colleagues Trevor Sudama and Ralph Maraj who shared his view that Panday was not doing enough to investigate allegations of corruption against the Government.

While O’Halloran and Prevatt were regarded as “the bagmen” in the PNM, similar claims were raised about “a short pants man” and other UNC financiers who were frequently sipping Johnny Walker Blue scotch whiskey at the poolside of the PM’s Residence at La Fantasie in St Ann’s while the UNC was in power.

Panday was eventually forced to dissolve Parliament and call general elections in 2001 which ended in an 18-18 tie between the UNC and the PNM. This placed the decision of who would form the government in the hands of then President Arthur NR Robinson. The President chose Manning as Prime Minister on the grounds of “moral and spiritual values.”

After the PNM won the 2002 general election, the Piarco Commission of Inquiry was appointed and it deliberated on the matter for several months before submitting a report to President George Maxwell Richards. The Piarco Inquiry looked into allegations made against former government ministers Russell Huggins, Brian Kuei Tung and Sadiq Baksh. Questions were also raised about roles played by UNC financiers Steve Ferguson and Ishwar Galbaransingh in the project. The roles of companies such as Birk Hillman, Northern Construction and Calmaquip in the project were also examined by the Piarco Commission. While several of the Piarco matters are still before the local courts, former officials of Birk Hillman pleaded guilty to fraud charges arising out of the Piarco Project before the courts in Miami and some are currently serving prison sentences there. And the issue continues today.

Last week, Justice Vashist Kokaram dismissed a case by Panday which challenged a decision by Magistrate Ejenny Espinet not to recuse herself from the preliminary inquiry into bribery charges against him. Panday and his wife Oma are before Espinet accused of receiving a $290,000 bribe from former UNC government minister Carlos John and Galbaransingh to favour the latter’s company for work on the Piarco Airport Project. Galbaransingh and Ferguson are fighting efforts to extradite them to the United States on 84 charges of bid-rigging, money laundering, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, conspiracy to defraud and wire fraud, arising from the Piarco Airport project. They were indicted on these charges by a US grand jury on November 29, 2005. While differences exist between the corruption scandals which occurred under past PNM and UNC governments, the common thread seems to be their ability to bring down the respective administrations of their time.

When he spoke in Parliament last Wednesday in defence of Udecott and his government, Manning said he never fired Rowley for anything he said about Udecott but because of his behaviour and his attitude. The Prime Minister also claimed that Rowley had joined forces with Maharaj, Chaguanas West MP Jack Warner and Mayaro MP Winston “Gypsy” Peters to destroy the UNC and the PNM.

Whether Manning or Rowley are correct will only be borne out by the final findings of the Uff Commission. With the Validation Bill now law, AG John Jeremie said: “I am authorised by the Prime Minister to say, to give an undertaking, that the Government will take all the steps to ensure that the Commission of Inquiry will complete its work and two, that the Government will take the appropriate action on the report of the Commission.”

For it is only when the Uff Commission submits its final report that the nation will finally know who is “el capo di tutti de capi (the boss of all bosses)” in what has now been described in some quarters as the Udecott affair. The Commission’s findings may also determine whether any of the players involved will discover that their salvation may lie in the hands of a skilled attorney rather than from drinking the brandy of the Holy Bible.

In the interim, we await the end of the concert of noisy gongs and clanging cymbals, inside and outside of the Parliament, for the truth to finally be heard.

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