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Patriots built bank

By Raffique Shah

 The cavalier manner in which certain senior officials at First Citizens responded to the legitimate concerns of citizens over aspects of the bank’s Initial Public Offering (IPO) exposed them as not knowing their own history, or caring about public trust that is critical to the success and survival of such institutions.

Had they been around in the late 1980s when the National Commercial Bank (NCB) and the Workers Bank collapsed, causing many ordinary people to lose their life savings, not to add confidence in local banks, those who triggered the current imbroglio might have spoken or acted differently.

It seems, however, that these johnnies-and-janes-come-lately, blinded by the multi-billion dollar success that First Citizens is today, and enjoying the fruits from a tree that patriotic Trinidadians and Tobagonians nurtured over some 20 years, care nothing about the bank’s reputation.

More than that, they know that in sweet T&T, persons in high society who have tonnes of money and good political connections can commit the most heinous crimes, or be unethical or immoral in the extreme, and never have to face sanctions or charges, far less wear handcuffs and leg-irons like fallen financial wizard Allen Stanford.

I don’t know how many people noted that ‘Pastor’ Vishnu Lutchmansingh, whom I had assessed as being an unholy crook from the day he pronounced himself a billionaire, carried two licensed firearms when he ran amok in Las Lomas last week. 

Here was a fraud who faced countless charges and was out on bail. But he still packed two deadly pieces, which, neighbours say, he used frequently to shoot at stray dogs—and in the end, a few members of his family.

You and I know that no police officer will be made to account for how the rogue priest remained armed while hundreds of good citizens who seek licences are denied that privilege.

But back to the First Citizens fiasco: I fully understand that there are parallel investigations underway involving the Attorney General, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Central Bank. As such, it is inadvisable for anyone to pre-judge the key issue at stake—Philip Rahaman’s acquisition-disposal-re-acquisition of close to 700,000 shares.

Still, most people believe nothing will come out of these various probes, not even explanations for the seemingly irregular transactions, far less prosecution, such is the lack of confidence in our institutions.

 Moreover, chairman of the board Nyree Alfonso exercised no restraint when she publicly pronounced on the issue shortly after it was made public, thanks to an alert media. She boldly advanced that Rahaman had done nothing illegal, and if ethics or morals was in question, then to each his own.

What a thing, as Keith Smith would have written, and as fellow columnists Reginald Dumas and Michael Harris expatiated on.

One week later, Alfonso’s board fired Rahaman and declared themselves, like Caesar’s wife, beyond reproach.

If Rahaman had done nothing illegal, and if his ethics and morals were private matters, why fire him? Will he now sue the bank for wrongful dismissal and win bigger bucks?

These people, Alfonso and her motley crew, are playing fast and loose with the one attribute that First Citizens worked long and hard to win: confidence. They met it intact, thanks to Larry Howai and a number of other managers and directors who worked against the odds to build First Citizens from the ashes of NCB and Workers Bank.

Thousands of patriots (I count myself among them) went with First Citizens when it started shakily back in the early 1990s. These people had seen two dreams of 1970, the aforementioned banks that they had all but given birth to, collapse under the weight of discrimination (in the case of NCB) and mismanagement and corruption (in Workers Bank).

The foreign banks based here invariably offered better terms for deposits and loans because they were bigger than the embryonic First Citizens. I recall even as I entrusted my pittance to the local bank, I had no choice but to take advantage of better terms at another bank with substantially more money that belonged to an institution that I led.

It was not my money, so my committee opted for the better offer.

People stuck with First Citizens even as it relied on government help and it tried, not successfully as I recall it, to recover bad debts from delinquent customers of its predecessor banks. In so many ways, the bank built its reputation, if not its portfolio, on the faith and trust reposed in it by such loyal citizens.

Today, others who probably avoided First Citizens like the proverbial plague during the lean years are defecating on us from high up the corporate ladder. And people in government, who also do not have a sense of history, of what it means to be loyal to local institutions, are condoning their crap.

Time was when foreigners would come into the country and steal our patrimony. Now, with a local oligarchy well entrenched in the form of blood-families that are sometimes indistinguishable from families-in-blood, our patrimony is in the hands of a few well-heeled clans whose loyalty is not to country, but to the almighty dollar.

The more things change...

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