Bring secret PNM schol fund to justice

 Onto the already burdened shoulders of the Director of Public Prosecutions, the police, and the Integrity Commission, Attorney General Anand Ramlogan has now thrust the responsibility for action on the Community Development Scholarship Fund. The fund, started ten years ago, ended well before the People’s Partnership came to office in 2010 with its ostensible mission to target with a vigorous investigative thrust all questionable aspects of the former PNM administration.

That the fund had run its course is what the public has supposed, after the splashy exposé of its existence in 2008-2009. The headline-grabbing dirt on this secret programme had been dug up by means of the civic-minded sleuthing and hell-raising of Devant Maharaj and Anand Ramlogan, then acting in the name of the Indo-Trinidad Equality Council. 

Over the four years since, however, Messrs Maharaj and Ramlogan have both held Cabinet positions in the People’s Partnership administration. Till now, though, they have little been identified with urgent pursuit of the fund to such conclusions as would discover wrongdoing and wrongdoers, and enable the law to take its course.

The public is accordingly left with the picture that, in the glory days of the energy boom, the Patrick Manning PNM administration had created a secret multimillion-dollar fund to provide scholarships. Disclosures focused on how this fund operated to favour, with six-figure disbursements from State coffers, chosen applicants, many of whom turned out conspicuously to be PNM people, and few of them classifiable as Indo-Trinidadian/Tobagonian. 

Back in 2008, then community development minister Marlene McDonald told Parliament that to disclose the names of those scholarship winners “would involve unreasonable disclosure of personal information”. The information was nevertheless disclosed through a Freedom of Information Act request that nullified Ms McDonald’s ill-fated stonewalling. 

In the story so far, a forensic audit by a respected accounting firm has found glaring irregularities in the design and operation of the fund. Examination of the fund data by PriceWaterhouseCoopers has thrown up equally flagrant evidence of favouritism and/or inattention to or disregard for settled procedure in the making of scholarship awards.

Inevitably, the timing of Attorney General Ramlogan’s reference of the case to the DPP, the police and the Integrity Commission has been held up for question. His charges of “misconduct in public office” have been regarded as conveniently designed to distract from noisy troubles now facing the Partnership administration.

Still, Joan Yuille-Williams, under whose ministerial portfolio the scholarship fund operated, may not dodge the hard questions necessarily arising. It appears to have taken unduly long for the secret fund to be independently investigated.

Now, however, it is for the police and other authorities to find those responsible for such wanton use of public funds, pinpoint lawbreaking, and let the chips fall where they may.

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