Opposition Leader Davis delivers a scathing account on Prime Minister Minnis lies to Parliament on the lease of the Town Centre Mall

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PM Hubert Minnis Abandons the FNM inspired SEVEN PRINCIPLES OF PUBLIC LIFE…

Opposition Leader Philip Brave Davis Q.C. in Parliament.

Remarks By
Hon. Philip Brave Davis QC, MP
Member for Cat Island, Rum Cay and San Salvador
Debate on No Confidence Vote in the Prime Minister
House of Assembly
11th December 2019

Thank you Mr. Speaker

WHY ARE WE HERE?!
I take no pleasure in this debate of No Confidence today, but what is at stake is bigger than me or any individual in this place. What is at stake is our democratic system of government and the tenets, the laws, the conventions, processes, procedures and practices that undergird them.

The preservation of the rule of law is at stake.

The protection of the rights of our citizens and due process are at stake.

Proper and regular checks and balances on the power of the executive is at stake.

An end to tyranny and abuse of power are at stake.

The arrest of despotic leadership and dictatorship are at stake.

It is said that evil prevails when good men (and women) stand idly and quietly by and do nothing.

We as policymakers therefore have a solemn and sworn responsibility to act in the public interest at all material times to protect these hard fought rights and privileges; these democratic institutions and ancient conventions that undergird our democracy.

Regardless of the outcome of this No Confidence Vote, history will judge us on where and how we stood voted when the sacred institutions and conventions we swore to protect and defend were under attack and the subject of rank abuse.

Did we boldly stand against abuse, tyranny, malfeasance and corruption or did we acquiesce and succumbed to pressure?

Did we demonstrate our loyalty, allegiance and obligation to the Constitution and Westminster Conventions or did we in the interest of comfort, simplicity and out of political convenience toe the party line?

History is always the final and enduring judge of our actions or inactions in our hours of decision.

HOW WE GOT HERE: THE ANTECEDENT (THE SMOKING GUN)
Mr. Speaker

The Member for Saint Annes made a number of public statements about the circumstances surrounding his involvement in the Town Center Mall negotiations. He went to great pains to differentiate between ‘preliminary’ and ‘final’ discussions. What Saint Annes sought to do in splitting hairs amounts to a distinction without a difference.

Try as he may and try as the FNM may to white wash this whole sordid affair and conveniently sweep it under the proverbial carpet, Article 49(f) was offended and the House was misled and we therefore must address it.

Following the resignation of Saint Annes from the Cabinet, he gave several interviews of significance. In an interview with Eye Witness News online published on 15th July 2019, Saint Annes said the following:

“I went to Mexico. I came back to The Bahamas. I then went to the United States in October. Now, when that happened (the discussion), I have to go back to by diary. I don’t recall. I never went to Mexico twice.
When the prime minister and I spoke, we spoke; no decision was made…; we did not not work out any details — we worked a parameter.
He (the prime minister) then took it from there. They had a Cabinet meeting when I was away. I was not a part of that and what happened after that happened.”

We had a preliminary discussion about the way forward; there was no decision taken okay, so when you guys try to impugn that the prime minister and I made a decision, that never happened.”

Saint Annes apparently also discussed with the Prime Minister the

comparison with the vehicles in an attempt to down size the proposal by the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) to rent the Town Centre Mall.
“That’s the concern because the PLP had plans to do the post office,” he said.

“They were going to build a Post Office at Town Centre Mall at 13,000 square foot and it was going to be a cafeteria, so they were going to rent 200,000 square feet at $25 before the election.
“The plans were drawn by the PLP, that they left in place.
“…They claim everything else, claim this one.”

According to a Bahamas Information Services (BIS) press release, this trip to Mexico as the then Minister for Financial Services was to attend the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners Latin America (LATAM) Conference 2018 from October 4-5, 2018.

The Member for Saint Annes appeared on a talk show called “The Conversation” on 2nd July 2019 where he held a rather in depth and engaging conversation with the host in connection with his conversation with the Prime Minister on the Town Center Mall lease, providing specific details on that conversation.

“I had no discussions with anyone about it. I figured there’s no way they are going to rent from my brother and myself, so I left it alone. The phone rang one morning in whenever, whatever; I was in Mexico.
It was early in the morning; PM and I get up early and PM said to me we are going to go ahead with the lease.
I said PM, I can deliver it by Christmas if it’s no Rolls Royce and we have to reduce the size of the building.
It can’t be 70, 80 thousand square feet. It has to be a Volkswagen, not a Rolls Royce.
We had that discussion. I said you have to deal with the whole question of conflict of interest.
He said we will do a resolution in the House of Assembly. He said, what will the rent be?
I said $12 dollars per square foot. The Ministry of Works and everything else we pretty well did the plans that were left in place by the PLP Government except for the cafeteria upstairs and some other space and the building was opened after some massive changes in the plans at the rent of $12 per square foot. ”

Mr. Speaker, does that not sound like a completed negotiation on this lease deal?

Further, during the conversation, the Prime Minister advised Saint Annes that he had made a decision on the Mall lease agreement. Saint Annes then raised the issue of a conflict of interest to which the Prime Minister responded that he will “fix it” or something to that effect.

Ostensibly, the House Resolution was designed to ‘fix’ the glaring conflict of interest, but one glaring deficiency was the paragraph advising the House that Saint Annes had no part in the discussions.

For the benefit and ease of reference of House members, I will read verbatim the paragraph in question because the record clearly shows that the House Resolution to approve the lease expressly stated that the Member for Saint Anne’s had no part in the negotiations, discussions and decision in respect to the lease agreement. Specifically, the Resolution of the 24th October 2018 said:

“AND WHEREAS one of the beneficial owners of the said Town Center Mall is a serving Cabinet Minister, who did not take part in the discussions leading to the decision to accept the offer to lease portions of the building, which will be made suitable for the operations of the General Post Office at the expense of the landlord; which Minister has nonetheless declared his interest;”

The legal instrument the Prime Minister intended to ‘fix’ the conflict of interest problem created a constitutional crisis as it offended Article 49(f) of the Constitution, Westminster Convention and the FNM inspired and adopted tenets and principles of public life.

As for the ‘preliminary discussions’, Saint Annes publicly expressed an interest in the lease for the post office before and after the May 2019 general elections. The entire Bahamas knew he was interested, so what was the call about?

Was there no other person in the organization the Prime Minister could have contacted to secure the information he got from his conversation from his then Financial Services Minister?

As an aside, we agree with the observation of pre-eminent constitutional scholar and former Attorney General Alfred Sears, who opined that Saint Annes’ unauthorized disclosures or revelations as a Cabinet Minister raised legal, constitutional and ethical issues.

According to Mr. Sears, Cabinet Ministers take an oath of allegiance swearing “not on any account, at any time whatsoever, disclose the counsel, advice, opinion or vote of any particular minister . . . except with the authority of the Cabinet and to such extent as may be required for the good management of the affairs of The Bahamas, directly or indirectly reveal the business of proceedings of the Cabinet or the nature or contents of any documents communicated to me as minister or any matter coming to my knowledge…”.

Mr. Sears characterized the matter as a crisis.

This was all lost on the Prime Minister as he heaped fulsome praise on Saint Annes upon his resignation. These violations of Westminster apparently meant nothing to him. Apparently he has no respect for our sacred institutions and conventions.

Mr. Speaker,
Therein lies the breach that this Honourable House must decisively address.

Mr. Speaker,
I am of the view that it is instructive to this House to examine the FNM’s inspired tenets and principles on the conduct of holders of public offices, especially given their sizable majority, against the backdrop of the anti-corruption narrative that underscored their 2017 political campaign.

STANDARDS OF CONDUCT FOR MINISTERS OF GOVERNMENT
Let us measure the level of duplicity in this current Government as it relates to the FNM inspired STANDARDS OF CONDUCT FOR MINISTERS OF GOVERNMENT, a tenet that appeared in Manifesto ‘07.

First, Ministers must ensure that no conflict arises, or appears to arise, between their public duties and their private interests.

The FNM failed this test because Member for Saint Annes admitted during a nationally televised interview and the Prime Minister agreed that there was an inherent conflict of interest in this Town Center Mall lease agreement. He said the Prime Minister would ‘fix’ the conflict of interest via a House Resolution. Killarney knew at the time that this was impossible and he could only successfully move this resolution through the House if he told an untruth because discussions with the member with an interest in this government contract had already taken place.

Killarney therefore had to consciously and knowingly mislead Parliament.

Second, Ministers are accountable to Parliament for the policies and operations of their departments and agencies.

The FNM failed this test also because given the principles governing the Westminster system of governance, there is collective responsibility at the Cabinet level. The Chairman of the Cabinet and first among equals, the Member for Killarney, knowingly and consciously failed to be accountable to Parliament by misleading House members.

Third, Ministers must not mislead Parliament. They must be open with Parliament and with the public.

The FNM failed this test with flying colours for the very obvious reasons that we are having this debate on No Confidence in the Prime Minister.

Mr. Speaker,
I turn my attention to the FNM inspired SEVEN PRINCIPLES OF PUBLIC LIFE.

  1. SELFISHNESS: This decision was selfishly taken in order that a Minister, his family, or friends would gain financial or other material benefits.
  2. INTEGRITY:The Prime Minister appears to have placed himself in a position of obligation that compromised him in the performance of his official duties. Why did Killarney have a compelling need to award this contract to Saint Annes? It has the appearance of a quid-pro-quo arrangement.
  3. OBJECTIVITY: In awarding this lease contract, the Prime Minister made this choice on considerations other than merit when he was obliged to do so on the sole basis of merit. Remember the infamous words of the Prime Minister in defence of his job appointment to that controversial character of questionable conduct? The Prime Minister said the following: “Isn’t he entitled to work? Isn’t he entitled to eat? Isn’t he entitled to sleep?
  4. ACCOUNTABILITY: The Prime Minister was clearly not accountable to Parliament and the public. He consciously and knowingly misled Parliament by hiding information and telling an untruth in order to avoid subjecting himself and his office to public and opposition scrutiny – that is, to avoid accountability.
  5. OPENNESS: The Prime Minister was not open about his decision. He knowingly hid the facts and information when it was in Parliament’s and the public’s interest to know all the facts.
  6. HONESTY: The entire lease agreement was conducted in a dishonest manner from the start and was offensive to Article 49 (f) of the Constitution.
  7. LEADERSHIP: Since the Prime Minister failed the first six principles of public life, he failed the seventh principle, that of leadership because he should have promoted and supported these principles by leadership and example.

I go further Mr. Speaker:
In 2017, the Prime Minister promised Bahamians it would be “the people’s time”, but it turned out that “the people” the Prime Minister intended to help were mostly limited to his inner political circle.
In addition to the Town Center Mall lease, companies owned by Saint were awarded contracts totaling more than $53 million. The record clearly shows that the Prime Minister misled the House on OBAN signing ceremony – no question about it – and he simply excused himself with the aid, comfort, endorsement, a wink and nod from thirty-three other Parliamentarians.

One has to ask whether the Prime Minister was trying to mislead the House on the amount or the extent of government largesse Saint Annes was enjoying or benefitting from.

He followed this up by presiding over a fraudulent signing ceremony broadcasted live on television. He later said the real agreement was signed by the duly authorized signatory was done sometime earlier but to date, he has failed to produce this real document. This matter was swept under the carpet.

Under public pressure, this same Prime Minister appointed a Cabinet subcommittee to investigate the government’s process and procedure leading up to the execution of the Heads of Agreement. The subcommittee concluded that the government broke the law. This matter was also hurriedly swept under the carpet.

The Prime Minister had to have known that he was putting his former Senate President, co-head of the Legislative Branch of government, in a position of conflict when he appointed her Hurricane Relief Coordinator for Grand Bahama, subject to the whip of the Executive Branch of government.

He eventually hustled her out the back door without any admission of wrongdoing and offence to our system of government when he appointed to head the Disaster Relief Authority. The fit and proper course of action was to admit to the folly, apologize then correct the said folly.

Mr. Speaker
If the Prime Minister was unaware of the extent of involvement and misconduct of his Ministers in the two completed cases involving PLP Parliamentarians, he was surely made aware during the trials. The preponderance of evidence of prosecutorial misconduct which drew judicial citation and condemnation should have prompted him to act in protection of the Constitution and the administration of justice.

In the aftermath, one of his Ministers said a call for discipline was comical and defended the misconduct; a second Minister said the devil was a liar; another Minister dismissed the call as political mischief and the Prime Minister himself chuckled throughout the blatant miscarriage of justice.

I say all of this to underscore a pattern of despotic, indefensible and unseemly behavior and conduct by the Prime Minister. The conduct of the Prime Minister in the Town Center Mall lease saga is but one example of ministerial misconduct in a series of misconducts.

From that fateful day when several police officers pulled up to BAIC’s corporate offices brandishing automatic weapons, the campaign of victor’s justice was in full flight. It involves political interference in the operations of the police force. It involves the disrespect of the rule of law. It involves offending the Constitution and by extension, Westminster Conventions.

The United Nations is clear on the established protocol for dealing with crimes involving politicians. The political directorate cannot be seen to be driving the process as it have the negative fallout of political persecution and division in the country which creates a dangerous precedent that has destroyed many countries.

Whenever it appears to the electorate that a government is driven by political vendetta and settling political scores, the country is placed on a slippery slope of political and social instability.

The United Nations put those protocols in place for very good and cogent reasons based on their international experience.

With this government, hypocrisy and duplicity know no bounds

Time after time, members of the Minnis Cabinet demonstrate they believe the rules apply to everyone else, but not to them.

Mr. Speaker, there is precedent in this Commonwealth that serve as examples of how holders of public office involved in misconduct, the misrepresentation of their public office, abuse of power, conflicts of interest, malfeasance and corruption are dealt with to preserve and protect the honour and integrity of ancient conventions in addition to public and democratic institutions.

With your kind leave I wish to share just a few examples with House members:

30 April 2018
Amber Rudd resigned as Home Secretary after she admitted “inadvertently misleading” Parliament over targets for removing illegal immigrants. In a letter to the PM, Ms. Rudd said “I should have been aware of this, and I take full responsibility for the fact that I was not.”

21 December 2017
Theresa May sacked Damian Green after a probe found he lied about porn being found on his Commons computer. The Prime Minister forced her closest Cabinet colleague and de facto deputy to resign after he was found to have breached the ministerial code of conduct.

21 May 2018
Dutch junior Justice Minister Mark Harbers resigned on 21 May over a government report on crime by asylum seekers that were published last week and was widely condemned as misleading.

21 October 2001
South Australian Premier John Olsen resigned on 21 October 2001 after the release of the Clayton Report on Motorola, which stated that he had given “misleading, inaccurate and dishonest evidence to a judicial inquiry”.

John Profumo, Secretary of State for War in the Harold McMillan government, resigned after lying in the House of Commons when he was questioned about his affair with Christine Keeler, the reputed mistress of an alleged Soviet spy.

There is public rancor surrounding the handling of the Town Center Mall lease, and for good reason, because it’s a scandal that combines and rolls up all of the above mentioned problems into one big mess and ball of confusion.

First of all, no Bahamian can have confidence that this deal, worth millions annually, was negotiated in the best interests of taxpayers.

Second, the government kept changing its own story about how a Minister in Cabinet ended up with this big money contract. No one believes their shifting explanations.

Third, the way this government has handled the scandal – with lies and arrogance instead of truth and apology – means we can expect more of the same going forward. No one believes this government is going to turn around and start working for the people instead of themselves.

Remember when they told us that they couldn’t use Phil’s Supermarket as originally intended, because it was not structurally sound? An engineering report proved that was a lie.

Then you just heard the account of the conversation between the Prime Minister and his then Financial Services Minister about this lease: Saint Annes went on a talk show and said that when the PM called him, he warned him that the Post Office wasn’t going to be a Rolls Royce, just a Volkes Wagon.

Here’s what the Prime Minister said: “OK, whatever you want, Saint Annes.”

Here’s what the Prime Minister didn’t say: “The Bahamian people deserve the best”.

Here’s something else the Prime Minister didn’t say: “Hey, those are hard-earned tax dollars, do better for us.”

In fact, the way Saint Annes described it, the PM didn’t try to negotiate any of the terms at all!

That’s because this has never been about doing right for the Bahamian people, it’s been about doing a favor for a member of the inner circle, a favor that the PM thinks can help him stay on top in the FNM despite all his other blunders and failures.

I also recall that not more than six months earlier, this government rejected the proposal to lease the Town Center Mall and proceeded to acquire the building on Gladstone Road that formerly housed the Phil’s Food Store. The government’s failure to provide any credible explanation for the change further exacerbates the wrong being perpetrated on the Bahamian people.

The question of the change of heart in light of the confirmed structural soundness of the building lingers unanswered and unaddressed to this day.

And there’s another funny thing about this conversation between the Prime Minister and Saint Annes – the Prime Minister told Parliament and the country that it never happened.

On October 24th last year, the PM and his colleagues passed in the House of Assembly a resolution to enter into a contract with Saint Annes and his brother. The resolution says that Saint Annes did not take part in the discussion leading to the decision to enter the contract. No mention of that friendly early morning phone call to Mexico! They asked us to believe that Saint Annes was just walking around like any other Bahamian and a million-dollar contract just came his way – imagine that! What luck!

But of course, the Prime Minister knew about the conversation when he pushed that resolution through in Parliament. He knew, but he didn’t feel any obligation to tell you about it. He didn’t feel any obligation to tell the truth on the floor of Parliament.

And you know what? That contract is just the tip of the iceberg.

In fact, the Prime Minister sat as the head of the Bahamas Cabinet and sanctioned the award of at least NINE contracts worth more than FIFTY-THREE million dollars to companies in which Saint Annes, his brother and his children have significant financial interests.

Everything from runway repairs to highway repairs to mail boat services —

And guess what? Remember what I said about them believing the rules don’t apply to them? Only once did he publicly declare his interest in a government contract in compliance with provisions of Article 49 of the Constitution, which is the part of our constitution that is supposed to deal with conflicts of interest like these.

A Prime Minister with a conscience would resign.

A Prime Minister who understood the conventions of Westminster and the principles of good governance would resign.

A man of honor would resign.

But to date his plan was to wait it out, and hope the Bahamian people forget.

But how can Bahamians – the electorate who sent us in this honourable place to represent their interest – forget about this corruption-in-plain-sight?

Special interests get special privileges, special access, and special favors, and in the meantime, the only time this government thinks of the Bahamian people is when they are inventing political slogans.

This pattern of behavior has far reaching consequences far beyond the four walls of Parliament.

There are national consequences;

There are reputational consequences;

There are attitudinal consequences.

When those at the top flaunt the law and dismiss improper and official misconduct, what messages are being sent to the electorate about their attitude toward the law?

Mr. Speaker;
I draw the attention of this House and the nation to an opinion piece written by noted American journalist Thomas L. Friedman that appeared in the New York Times in June of 2017: On a trip to Canada, he was asked by a Canadian, “what do you fear most these days.” Mr. Friedman’s response was surprising. It was not crime – he said “I fear we’re seeing the end of ‘truth’ – that we simply cannot agree anymore on basic facts…the sectarianism that has destroyed nation-states in the Middle East is now infecting us (meaning America).”

There are institutions that are the arbiters of truth. Parliament is one; the Forth Estate is one and the religious community is another. The church, for its part, deals in ‘moral absolutes’ and truth sits as the chief moral foundational principle on which the church is built.

The integrity of the institutions that govern us and order civil society can only stand if they are buttressed by truth as no lie can last forever.

As Bahamians, we have to agree on Basic facts and not allow political tribalism or sectarianism as Mr. Friedman called it, to divide, conquer and destroy us. We must stand up for truth.

So Mr. Speaker, given the foregoing, this Parliament must act in accordance with the laws, rules and conventions that govern and give it credibility and honour. The facts reveal that the Member for Killarney knowingly, intentionally and deliberately misled this Honourable House.

We ask that in your deliberations, you as House members uphold ancient tradition, convention and precedent of these hollow chambers by placing the honour and integrity of this Honourable House above partisan politics and cult of personality.

I urge House Members to do the right and honourable thing and send a loud and clear message that this House has no confidence in the member for Killarney to continue to serve as Prime Minister or in this honourable House.

Thank you Mr. Speaker.