FULL Statement by Rt. Hon. Perry Christie MP
Leader of the Progressive Liberal Party
I have had the advantage of reviewing the statement made by the Prime Minister in support of the Minister of State Zhivargo Laing.
The Prime Minister’s statement was issued following upon the release of the comprehensive review of this matter by my Party which was issued on Wednesday 26th March.
Our review concluded that without question the Minister had placed himself in the position of approving the reduction of the customs duty on a specific product imported and sold by his sister-in-law. Mr. Laing made that decision at the request of his brother, Tyrone Laing, and for the benefit of his sister-in-law. The conflict of interest is clear.
The Prime Minister has condoned the wrongdoing of his minister. He has embraced every single aspect of the wrongdoing by adopting uncritically all of the misplaced arguments of his Minister of State.
The Prime Minister in his statement has mixed up the facts in a way that is bound to confuse and mislead.
The Prime Minister said: “The Minister at no time changed a customs duty rate. Neither the Minister nor the Comptroller of Customs is empowered to change customs duty rates.”
No one in the PLP alleged that the Minister changed the customs duty rate.
The facts are clear on this point.
The drink Mona Vie belongs properly and lawfully in a particular category.
It was moved by Customs from the wrong category which attracts 10% duty to the right category which attracts 45% duty.
The Minister’s relatives complained to the Minister in September 2007. The result was the Minister penned instructions to keep the product in the wrong category.
The Prime Minister’s statement masks the real issue. He suggests as his Minister did that because there were other complaints about the rate of duty on the drink at the time of the complaint made by the Minister’s sister-in-law that the Minister acted for the public good.
The record is clear.
The complaint was initiated formally by his sister-in-law. There was a follow up complaint by his brother over the telephone to the Minister of State. The Minister acted through his own hand and that of the Secretary for the Revenue. The Secretary for the Revenue directed Customs not to collect the correct rate of duty. The direct and intended beneficiaries of Mr. Laing’s intervention were his brother and sister-in-law.
That is the plain unvarnished truth.
The Prime Minister should explain to the Bahamian people what it is about this case that is fundamentally different from the case of Brent Symonette when he was made to resign over his conduct in awarding a contract at the airport to a company in which he or family members had a personal interest.
Even if the Prime Minister is correct, which we do not accept, that Minister Laing had the power to act as he did, the question still remains whether that power was properly exercisable by him in circumstances involving a clear conflict of interest between his public duty and his private interests, namely his interest in helping out his brother and sister-in-law.
In the case of Mr. Symonette it was not a question of whether or not he had the power to act as he did, but rather whether he could properly exercise that power in a way that involved serious conflict between his public duty and his private interests.
In summary then, the Minister of State must explain why he did not remove himself from any aspect of this decision. His decision aided his family members. What happened was wrong. No explanation by the Prime Minister can correct this. If Mr. Laing fails to act, the Prime Minister must do the right thing.