Sad to say, this CL Financial bailout is resembling a situation in which well-connected persons are getting what they can, anyway they can, but making sure not to get caught. Who were the beneficiaries of this lavish payout? What is this reluctance to release details?
That is the Code of Silence in effect.
I was not at all surprised at the reported statements of the Minister of Finance, Larry Howai, on the 22 July 2015 High Court judgment ordering him to provide the detailed information I had requested on the CL Financial bailout. The High Court granted a 28-day stay of execution and the Ministry is reportedly in consultation with its lawyers, claiming that “A decision will be made within the period of time allowed by the court,”. The article closed with this quote –
“…Finance Minister Larry Howai said in the statement it should be noted, none of the requests refer to “how over $25b was spent in the Clico bailout”…”
Given that the very request was for the detailed financial information which has been deliberately suppressed since 2009, it is of course impossible to say with any certainty just how much Public Money was actually spent on this CL Financial bailout. That is the inescapable fact at the centre of this scandal. The Minister’s tautology is really a powerful explanation of this point.
Oath of Office
“…Ministers of government in our country take and subscribe the oath of allegiance and oath for the due execution of his/her office – under Section 84 of the Constitution – upon their appointment.
Section 84.Form of Oath (affirmation) for
A Minister or Parliamentary Secretary
I, A.B.. do swear by………… (solemnly affirm) that I will bear true faith and allegiance to Trinidad and Tobago and will uphold the Constitution and the law, that I will conscientiously, impartially and to the best of my ability discharge my duties as ………… and do right to all manner of people without fear or favour, affection or ill will.
To my mind, the only reasonable reading of the phrase ‘conscientiously, impartially‘ is that personal, family, friends or other commercial interests must never be present or considered when discharging public duties. The closing phrase specifies without fear or favour, affection or ill will, the plain meaning of which only reinforces the previous point…”
That is an extract from ‘Swearing an Oath‘, my January 2012 article in another publication which was a strong criticism of the conduct of former Minister of Finance, Karen Nunez-Tesheira in relation to this CL Financial bailout. The same criticism seems applicable here.
What is PNM’s position on this matter?
It is likely that the State will appeal this High Court Decision. The PNM could win the national elections on 7 September, so it seems appropriate to ask just what is their position on this matter. The PNM’s election campaign has made strong appeals on Accountability, Transparency and Good Governance in our Public Affairs. PNM leader, Dr Keith Rowley was removed from Cabinet in April 2008, so he did not participate in those fateful Cabinet decisions in 2009 on this CL Financial bailout.
If the PNM were victorious in the national elections, I would be calling for an immediate withdrawal of any appeal which had been lodged in this matter and the urgent publication of the requested information. I have observed before that the CL Financial scandal has spanned two administrations, so it would be refreshing for a leader who is relatively untouched by that affair to initiate open and accountable conduct of this matter. Only time will tell.
The fundamentals are that Public Money must be managed and accounted for to a higher standard than that which applies to private money. That is the accepted position in terms of good practice in public administration. Larry Howai is a qualified accountant and was a career banker before his appointment as Minister of Finance & the Economy. I do not accept that Howai is unaware of these standards. We are entitled to a full and detailed accounting of how this vast sum of Public Money was spent.
I am not at all meaning to imply that Howai has benefitted from any illegal use of Public Money. I am simply attempting to hold him accountable, as our Minister of Finance, for these vast expenditures of Public Money.
It was clear from the way my requests for information were handled that the Ministry was determined to keep those details secret. The Freedom of Information Act contains ten sections which list the various exemptions which can be claimed to refuse publication. Even if the requested information is determined to be subject to an exemption, S.35 stipulates the test to decide if the release of that information is actually in the public interest. If the requested information appears to be ‘in the balance’ between an applicable exemption and the public interest, the FoIA requires that it be published.
In this case, no logical reason was given at any point for refusing the requested information. What is more, the S.35 test was never even applied. The very handling of my request was itself in breach of the FoIA. The State’s conduct in this case bears a close resemblance to the odious and immoral behaviour from the ‘bad old days’. Yes, we used to call that kind of oppressive behaviour ‘Might is Right’. The State and its agents have an over-riding duty to conform to the law and be exemplary in the conduct of their duties.
Having failed in their attempt to obstruct and delay publication of details of how the State spent these vast sums of Public Money, there is no explanation offered for these misguided and improper actions by public officials. If one is to take the Minister’s statements at face value, it appears that even more official time and Public Money is to be spent to hide just how our money has been distributed.
We have no idea as to the cost of this High Court case or what is the estimated cost of the Appeal. Is that also a closely-guarded secret, which will require another Freedom of Information application and more litigation?
Apart from the higher standard reporting required for Public Money as a starting-point, it is important to remember that on 1 October 2010, the PM estimated the cost of the bailout at $14.3 Billion. At this point, the official statements indicate that over $25 Billion has been spent and that means we are looking a scandal right in the face. Over $10.5 Billion more than the original estimate has been spent, so where did that extra money go? That is the Elephant in the Room.
Most sobering of all, despite the favourable judgment, there is nothing to prevent this happening again. Nothing. We need to change the fundamental understanding on these matters so that we can see that the Public Money and the Information is ours. That would be the beginning of real Republican thinking.
The Minister of Finance has the responsibility to provide a proper and timely account of the vast Public Monies spent in this matter. This issue goes to a level of basic credibility. The Minister accepts and strongly defends an arrangement which sees over $25 Billion in Public Money spent without providing a proper, detailed account. Given that stated position, how then can this Minister, demand accounts and financial details from other Ministries or State Agencies? It seems like a straight case of ‘Nearer to Church, further from God‘, as the older folks used to say. Do as I say, but not as I do. I tell you.
© 2015, Copyright by Afra Raymond. All Rights Reserved. May not be reprinted without permission.