Another reason for constitutional reform
Acting President Timothy Hamel-Smith has offered a very naive response to the BOLT controversy which has seen drawn swords between the Central Government and the Tobago House of Assembly (THA).
The Kamla Persad-Bissessar administration, gearing up for the THA elections due next February, has questioned the legality of a Build Own Lease Transfer (BOLT) arrangement used by the THA to fund a new office building. It turns out, however, that AIC Capital Market Brokers had sought legal advice from Hamel-Smith & Co on another proposed THA project, which was provided by Mr Hamel-Smith himself. That advice held that there was nothing illegal about the arrangement, albeit there is a difference between the project Hamel-Smith gave the legal opinion on (a lease/leaseback arrangement to develop an Administrative Centre for Education, Sport and Youth purposes) and the controversial Milshirv BOLT project.
However, Attorney General Anand Ramlogan, having used the cover of parliamentary privilege to allege corruption on the part of THA Chief Secretary Orville London, has referred the BOLT matter to the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Integrity Commission, and the Commissioner of Police. The upshot is that the opinion given by the Acting President of Trinidad and Tobago can be construed as the Attorney General (and by extension the Government) adopting an erroneous legal stance.
Mr Hamel-Smith is, quite rightly, embarrassed by this turn of events. "When my firm was approached, we might have been approached in 2010 or even 2009, there was nothing that suggested that it would become a matter of contention," Mr Hamel-Smith told the Express, adding that he would not have involved himself if he had thought such an eventuality might occur.
Indeed, as a matter of absolutely strict ethics, his firm would have to refuse any brief which had the slightest possibility of becoming a matter of public controversy. Since his legal partners might disagree with such a policy, however, Mr Hamel-Smith's other option was to refuse the post of Senate President. After all, even in that role, he might have to preside over debates on which he had already offered a professional opinion.
The wider issue here is whether anyone who may act as President should have private obligations which may conflict with his duty to the highest office in the land. This is further complicated by the fact that the Senate president is usually a partisan political appointee. Even if the particular individual conducts himself or herself with the utmost impartiality, the perception of political bias taints any rulings they make.
Once again, therefore, the issue of Constitutional reform has come to the fore. This will continue to happen, and each additional straw brings public confidence in our institutions that much closer to breaking point.