Saturday, February 24, 2018

PM must clarify conflicting statements

Express editorial logo394

Mark Fraser

The onus is now squarely on the Prime Minister to step forward and say whether or not she received a second letter from former solicitor general (SG) Eleanor Donaldson-Honeywell in the controversial matter of financial settlements by the State in cases involving prisoners.

The clarification has become urgent in light of the conflicting statements coming from the PM and her Attorney General. On one hand, we have PM Persad-Bissessar saying that she was “advised” that the former SG has followed up her initial letter of concern with another letter expressing “satisfaction with what has been happening”. “I have not seen that letter; I read it in the newspaper,” she said.

On the other hand, there is the AG, presenting an unsigned letter purportedly from the SG to the Sunday Express and claiming that the signed version was sent to the Prime Minister: “Obviously, the Office of the Prime Minister receives hundreds of correspondence every day, and I don’t expect the PM to recall seeing a letter sent so long ago,” he said, in an attempt to explain the PM’s statement about not having seen any such letter.

So the question is: Did the Prime Minister see or not see the follow-up letter from the then Solicitor General? It is difficult to imagine a scenario as suggested by the Attorney General, that the PM could have read such a letter and not be able to recall it. After all, the concerns of unethical business practices raised by the former SG cut deeply to the heart of the justice system. It is unthinkable that such correspondence could have made so little impression that the PM could have forgotten it.

The public interest demands that this issue not be allowed to wither away as another nine-day wonder. The public also needs to know, for a fact, what actually transpired between the Solicitor General and the Attorney General before the SG’s decision to resign and leave the Office of the Attorney General. Having returned to private practice, Ms Donaldson-Honeywell seems intent on maintaining the public office-holder’s tradition of silence on matters related to the office she once held. But she, too, should consider whether the public interest is not better served by breaking her silence.

Whether or not her concerns were defused before leaving office, however, this weekend’s statement from the Prison Officers Association (POA) adds a new dimension to the issue. The POA’s continued demand for the Prime Minister to heed the call for an investigation into the state’s financial settlement of a number of cases with prisoners indicates that, for prison officers at least, the matter remains unresolved.

This issue of settlements by the State is just one of a number of financial issues that have been raised in relation to the Office of the Attorney General. Others include the quantum of fees being paid to certain private attorneys and the hiring of legal consultants, among others.

Perhaps, the time has come for a full audit to be conducted on the Office of the Attorney General.