Sunday, December 17, 2017

What cash puts together...


Mark Fraser

 The annual reenactment of Tobago’s “Ole Time Wedding” is theatrical but last weekend’s parade of politicians at Tobago’s “lavish” Galbaransingh wedding was real. There were no stovetop hats and scissor tail suits at the Galbaransingh wedding, but the wedding’s combination of a few persons charged with corruption in the Piarco Airport construction and parliamentarians who supported Section 34, refreshes memories of the furore over the legislative provision and the unanswered questions around it. 

Alongside, the permanence of Ishwar Galbaransingh’s handle as “UNC financier” presents a reminder that Section 34’s repeal and Minister Volney’s firing may have settled part of the Section 34, but the PM has not addressed the bigger issues of procurement and election campaign reform. Beyond the Galbaransingh wedding, the marriage of private money and public office will continue into the next parliamentary elections due by 2015. 

In an April 7, 2013 statement on the High Court’s ruling in favour of Section 34’s repeal, the PM and UNC political leader felt vindicated by the Government’s swift action to nullify Section 34’s effects, clearing the way for various defendants including some charged for corruption in the Piarco Airport construction project. In that statement the PM also congratulated the Attorney General and the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) for their hard work and dedication to the cause. 

Section 34 and its repeal no doubt put the PM’s political party and some of its financiers on a collision course. On one hand the UNC, like others, has its financial supporters, Galbaransingh included. On the other hand the party’s legislators have sworn obedience to the Constitution. Now here’s what the PM did not say at the time she celebrated the High Court success or anytime since: what caused Section 34 to be inserted into the version of the Bill that went to the Senate, after having been passed in the House and what, if any, role did her party’s sources of financial support have in the creation and enactment of Section 34? 

There is no question the PM considers Section 34 to be a serious issue. 

In a May 2013 interview with the media the PM reportedly said she regretted the controversial proclamation and subsequent repeal of Section 34 and, “It should never have happened”. But, the PM has misled herself into thinking that the Section 34 repeal and the dismissal of then Minister Volney settled the issues. Since then, the PM has not advanced the issues of election campaign financing reform, procurement reform, and all the other changes required to remove some of the mystery that may have influenced the public’s perception of everything around Section 34. The PM’s position of regret, then silence, was not new.

In a September 2011 interview the PM also described her Government’s sanction of Reshmi Ramnarine’s appointment to head the country’s counter-narcotics agency as a mistake, noting that the approval was the greatest fallout in her Government up to that time. She never explained what caused the mistake and what was regretted. 

Sure enough, Section 34 was not on the same level as the Reshmi appointment but several grades more serious. And like the Reshmi appointment, Section 34 remains regretted but unexplained. 

Now, this is where, like the annual Tobago wedding reenactment, last weekend’s Galbaransingh family wedding reenacted the memories of Section 34. First, Section 34 was part of legislation laid in Parliament by then minister of justice and St Joseph MP Herbert Volney. Volney was a High Court judge controversially and inexplicably plucked from the bench and thrust right away into an election campaign. Second, Volney’s election campaign manager is a defendant in the Piarco Airport corruption cases. 

Third, after approval in the House of Representatives, the Bill into which the repealed Section 34 appeared was laid in the Senate by then minister Volney without any indication that Section 34 had been altered in a manner that favoured several defendants including Volney’s campaign manager (also a guest at the wedding) and Ishwar Galbaransingh, the wedding host. Fourth, at no time during the debate in the Senate then minister Volney or the AG pointed to the very significant change to Section 34, both allowing Independent Senator and Senior Counsel Elton Prescott to refer to and debate the previous version of Section 34. Fifth, Volney specified that the Bill before the Senate was the one approved by the House. 

Despite the PM’s regret of the enactment of Section 34 and her self-praise over its repeal and successful High Court defence, she has never provided a full and frank disclosure of the events leading to Section 34’s entrance onto the Senate floor and the failure of her AG to highlight the section, its impact, and the difference between its consequences and the consequences of the version previously approved by the House. 

The public welcomed Volney’s firing and his removal from the House for reasons inclusive of Section 34. The thought of a political party negotiating an electoral nomination with a sitting judge does not sit well with those who treasure the independence of the judiciary. And beyond that, Volney the MP and minister, did not endear himself to many. But, Volney’s removal did not answer the serious political, parliamentary and constitutional questions around Section 34 and election campaign financing. It did not answer questions raised by the DPP’s comments on the AG’s decision not to appeal Justice Boodoosingh’s judgment on the Galbaransingh and Ferguson extradition. And it did not answer questions on the highhanded manner in which Section 34 was gerrymandered into law. 

When reenacted, the “Ole Time” Tobago wedding includes a dance called the “Brush Back”, featuring a series of forward, backward, and sideways movements. The Galbaransingh wedding in Tobago, the parade of politicians, and the presence of a few Piarco Airport accused had that same effect. A fully choreographed forward, backward, and sideways manoeuvring, performed by decked-off, well-heeled, and completely willing participants. 

• Clarence Rambharat is a lawyer and a university lecturer