The Mona Vie scandal revisited

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Oswald Brown

Oswald Brown Writes

By OSWALD T. BROWN

The Mona Vie scandal continues to be a millstone around the neck of Minister of State for Finance Zhivargo Laing as he struggles to retain a seat in the House of Assembly.

Having represented Marco City for the past four-plus years, Laing has abandoned the voters in that Grand Bahama constituency to try and win the Fort Charlotte seat in New Providence, where he is hoping that the Mona Vie scandal will not be a major issue.

Well he is wrong; dead wrong. There’s no question that the voters in Fort Charlotte are greatly concerned about a scandal of that magnitude, which was a hot topic in early 2008. The scandal centered around a decision made by the then Comptroller of Customs John Rolle to properly change the duty on the importation of Mona Vie, a nutritional drink, from 10 percent to 45 percent and the alleged involvement of Minister of State for Finance Laing in reportedly seeking to have that decision reversed.

According to information that surfaced at the time, Laing’s sister-in-law, who was one of the importers of Mona Vie, complained to him about the change in duty, and Laing reportedly requested that the Secretary of the Revenue look into the matter. Subsequently, the Comptroller of Customs allowed the lower rate of 10 percent to remain in place until the new budget process.

This intervention by Laing ignited a firestorm of criticism from the opposition Progressive Liberal Party (PLP), which conducted a comprehensive review and investigation into “the gravely improper conduct of Minister of State Zhivargo Laing in the scandal over special customs duty treatment for his relatives.”

The comprehensive review was headed by Bain and Grants Town MP Dr. Bernard Nottage, then leader of the Opposition Business in the House of Assembly.

“The Review shows that the Minister is in a clear position of conflict of interest,” Dr. Nottage noted. “The Review show where, he (Laing) admits through his own mouth, that he intervened to make sure that a lower rate of duty was applied to a product before it was imported by his brother and his sister-in-law.”

Dr. Nottage called upon Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham “to explain why he has been silent in the face of this clear conflict by his junior Minister, especially in the Ministry of Finance for which the Prime Minister himself is responsible.”

In response, the Prime Minister in statement claimed that he had “reviewed all the facts and circumstances surrounding the allegations made against Minister of State Zhivargo Laing by the Opposition and its various spokespersons” and had “concluded that Minister Laing acted within the scope and ambit of the authority delegated and entrusted to him by myself as Minister of Finance.”

This statement by the Prime Minister prompted a response from Opposition Leader Perry Christie the following day, March 27, 2008, in which he accused the Prime Minister of condoning “the wrongdoing of his minister” by embracing “every single aspect of the wrongdoing by adopting uncritically all of the misplaced arguments of his Minister of State.”

Pointing out that Laing’s relatives complained to him in September 2007, Mr. Christie added: “The result was the Minister penned instructions to keep the product in the wrong category. The Prime Minister’s statement masks the real issue…”

Keep in mind that the complaint by Laing’s relatives were made within months after the FNM returned to power in May of 2007; therefore, the conclusion could easily be reached that his relatives wanted to waste no time in “cashing in” on Laing’s position as Minister of State for Finance.

Clearly, rather than defend Laing, the dialogue and public debate this scandal triggered brought to light enough evidence for Prime Minister Ingraham to demand Laing’s resignation as Minister of State for Finance, and if he failed to resign he should have been fired. This certainly would have been the outcome if another Minister was involved, but it is no secret that Ingraham has a different standard for Laing than for his other Ministers.

Despite this fact, Laing probably still believed that he was in trouble, so he took action to halt public debate on the issue by filing a lawsuit on April 3, 2008, against Dr. Nottage; John Rolle, the retired Comptroller of Customs, and Frank Smith, the PLP MP for St. Thomas More, who initially exposed the scandal in the House of Assembly.

There has been no indication that the lawsuit has been withdrawn or that an agreement was reached with the persons who were sued, so the question that now has to be asked is this: “When will the Court hear arguments related to this lawsuit or are the Bahamian people to assume that this matter has been permanently swept under the carpet?”

This scandal has roots way back to 2007, and Laing has over the past four-plus years demonstrated that he has been a totally inept and incompetent Minister of State for Finance, so Ingraham can’t use the excuse that Laing is too valuable to his governmental team to be dismissed as a result of this scandal.

Voters in Fort Charlotte deserve to know the truth surrounding this scandal before they go to the polls to elect their Member of Parliament.
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