“…3. (1) The object of this Act is to extend the right of members of the public to access to information in the possession of public authorities…”
—Objects statement in FoIA
“…Because outside of national security matters and matters of the Cabinet…there are few other matters on the government files, that should really be secret…”
—PM Dr Keith Rowley at the post-Cabinet press briefing on 23 May 2019.
Afra Raymond appeared on CNC3’s The Morning Brew with host Hema Ramkissoon on Monday 10 June 2019 to discuss the proposal to amend the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The FOIA has been an instrumental piece of legislation in the quest for transparency and accountability in governance. Any amendments to this act necessarily affect this process. Video courtesy CNC3 Television
Programme Length: 00:27:04
Programme Date: Monday 10 June 2019
“…Trinidad and Tobago maintains that the principles of open government-accountability, transparency and citizen participation are essential for effective democratic governance…In the execution of good governance, efforts are currently underway to increase the availability of information about governmental activities, support civic participation, implement the highest standards of professional integrity throughout the administration and increase access to new technologies for openness and accountability…”
—These extracts are from the T&T official statement on the Open Government Partnership, which this country joined in 2013.
The ongoing Information War is increasingly driven by the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA), which in 1999 created the right to obtain information held by Public Authorities, subject to certain limitations as to State security and private or commercial information.
The relationship between a bank and its customers is a useful analogy to understand these principles. The customer depositing money into her account does so for safekeeping and to earn some small interest. Although the bank is responsible for that money, at no point in time is it the property of the bank – indeed, it is a liability in the bank’s accounts. The bank merely has custody of that money and must follow the customer’s lawful instructions as to how that money is dealt with.
The FoIA at S.4 defines ‘official documents’ held by Public Authorities as – “…a document is held by a public authority if it is in its possession, custody or power…”.
The Privy Council ruled on 20th May 2019 in favour of well-known UNC activist, Ravi Balgobin Maharaj, who was seeking leave to file a judicial review of the refusal of Petrotrin to release two witness statements made in intended legal action against a former Board of Directors. That was a PNM-appointed Board, chaired by the late Malcolm Jones, and the intended US$97M legal action was in respect of alleged negligence in Petrotrin’s large-scale investment in the Gas to Liquids project. That legal action was stopped during the term of the current PNM administration, so the air was rife with allegations and denials.
At the post-Cabinet press briefing on 23 May 2019, PM Rowley made a commitment to have refusals of FoIA requests by Public Authorities subject to vetting by the Attorney General so as to reduce ‘unnecessary liabilities’, in terms of legal costs, on the State. Dr Rowley made two further important statements –
- A general principle – “…Because outside of national security matters and matters of the Cabinet…there are few other matters on the government files, that should really be secret…”
- In relation to the Petrotrin matter, on which the Privy Council had just ruled – “…I am instructing the Minister of Energy to use the authority that he has under the Constitution to instruct Petrotrin to make the two witness statements, the same thing that went to the Privy Council, that they (the UNC) claim is the smoking gun, available and public, so that the public can read them and determine whether Malcolm Jones can rest in peace…”
The FoIA judicial review against Petrotrin has now been reportedly re-filed, since those two witness statements have not been released –
“…Maharaj said Rowley and Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi have both said there is nothing incriminating or conspiratorial in the witness statements. He questioned why the statements have not been released. Maharaj also claimed the law firm representing Petrotrin, JD Sellier and Company, refused to accept service of the claim. He alleged the firm said it had no instructions on the matter.
As such, Maharaj said he now has to serve the FoIA claim directly on Petrotrin…”
While the PM’s statements on the application of the FoIA are welcome, I am aware of a cosy consensus across the so-called political divide. Let me explain.
Under S.40 of the FoIA –
“…40. (1) The Minister shall, as soon as practicable after the end of each year, prepare a report on the operation of this Act during that year and cause a copy of the report to be laid before each House of the Parliament…”
That Report was a valuable examination of the operation of the FoIA, but the last such Report was laid in Parliament in 2010. Since 2010, we have had no official Report on this important aspect of our rights as citizens, but it does not seem to have disturbed either political camp. I am subject to correction, but no protest or strong statement on that breach of the law comes to mind.
More particularly, the Invaders’ Bay matter was an action by the JCC to disclose the legal advice relied upon by the Minister of Planning and Development in relation to the proposed large-scale development of public property at Invaders’ Bay in POS. In that case, the State lost at both the High Court and Appeal Court stages, with no further action taken to file an appeal to the Privy Council. Indeed, para 38 of that Privy Council ruling on the Petrotrin FoIA matter refers to that Invaders’ Bay ruling as “…the leading decision of the Court of Appeal…”. Yet that Court of Appeal ruling that those legal advices be published remains unenforced. Of course, it is entirely unrealistic to expect that the UNC would ever protest that failure or refusal to satisfy the Court of Appeal ruling, since the illegal decision to refuse disclosure was made during its term in office as the Peoples Partnership.
That is the cosy consensus which binds us, in this Information Age.
My previous article gave two examples of the stance of our public officials on legal advice and legal fees. I also cited Dr Rowley’s statement to Parliament on 1 July 2016 which gave details of the $78.5M in legal fees spent at the Colman Enquiry into the collapse of CL Financial.
The details in the PM’s voluntary disclosure of those Colman Enquiry legal fees was contrasted with the plain reluctance of certain Public Officials to disclose similar details to me in relation to the CL Financial bailout. The evasions of the Ministry of Finance to resist my litigation were all taken under the advice of eminent Senior Counsel, no doubt highly-paid.
The central Republican value, has to be that none of us are lawfully entitled to the obscene privileges which prevailed in the bad old days. In fact, the distinctive thing about a Republic is that there are no more Earls, Lords, Ladies, Kings, Queens, Barons or Princes – save and except for Carnival Time. But those Republican ideals are being experienced in an individualistic and status-obsessed society. Continue reading “Legal Fees Dis-ease”
The concerted attempts to sell the Tobago Sandals project were driven by high-level Public Officials who repeatedly assured the public that the existing arrangements for the three State-owned hotels were working satisfactorily. So much so that we should be pleased that the existing arrangements were to be adopted for the new project. The two main promoters were PM, Dr Keith Rowley and the Minister in the Office of the PM, Stuart Young.
Of course, we now know, due to the unplanned publication of that Tobago Sandals MoU, what were the terms and conditions on which the State intended to engage that project. No other hotelier had ever had a deal like that.
But there is a deeper series of official conversations on these existing State-owned hotels which need to be spotlighted so that a better view can be had as to ‘Who is Who and What is What’.
I am relying on the official records in this one, with my sparing commentary shown below – Continue reading “Property Matters – Hotel Reservations”
‘The Truth eats Lies’
—from Marlon James’ latest epic ‘Black Leopard, Red Wolf’
The previous article stated that over $5.0 Billion of Public Money was spent in the first 6 months of 2009 during the CL Financial bailout, under that MoU. Yes, that is the same type of document which we were so loudly being told is not binding and can be completely renegotiated, in relation to Tobago Sandals.
The publication of the Tobago Sandals MoU at the end of November 2018, forced by my litigation, set those misleaders to try diverting concerns by claiming it was all open for discussion. Of course it is possible to renegotiate any contract, or MoU for that matter, but that is trite and explains nothing. Probably intentionally so, really.
The limits of renegotiation are rooted in the bargaining strength of the parties. Which means that the party with stronger leverage can in fact call for renegotiation and likely obtain improved terms. The weaker party will almost inevitably agree to renegotiation, in the course of which serious concessions will be obtained by the stronger party.
The recent episodes of Sandals shutdown/withdrawals in both Antigua and Barbuda and the Turks and Caicos Islands are crucial in understanding this ‘Carefully Crafted Confusion’. In both those cases, Sandals spent the capital to build the resort, but yet were still able to shutdown to seek further concessions. In the Tobago case, Sandals was investing no capital. Even in what I am now calling the Lok Jack Gambit (which I will get to in the next part) no Sandals capital was at risk. The point being that if Sandals was intended to have no capital at risk in Tobago, T&T would have been in a far weaker negotiating position than any of the other Caribbean countries. That is the precipice we were facing, the deep peril which our misleaders are trying to normalise. Continue reading “Property Matters – Tobago Sandals MoU-MoU”
This week I will examine the response to Sandals unexpected withdrawal on Tuesday 15th January 2019 from the proposed large-scale development at Buccoo/Golden Grove Estates in Tobago. I was very surprised by Sandals stated refusal to proceed with this Public Private Partnership (PPP) arrangement in which no private capital was to be invested. When the Press Conference was announced, I believed that the deal for the proposed Resorts was to be signed.
It was clear that the mood from the head table was a gloomy one. The blame for this aborted project was placed on the ‘badgering’ and ‘negative publicity’ from a minority of commentators and political operators.
The striking official silence on the contents and implications of the MoU is damning, given the scale of the project and the amount of political capital which had been invested in the Tobago Sandals proposals. Continue reading “Property Matters – Tobago Sandals silence”