When is a scandal a scandal?

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Oswald Brown

OSWALD BROWN WRITES!

By OSWALD T. BROWN

Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) leader Perry Christie was absolutely correct when he noted in a recent press statement that Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham and the FNM are “in a state of panic” and are using the controversy surrounding proposed oil drilling in The Bahamas as the basis of “a last-minute television ad filled with last-minute lies” to defame him.

Mr. Christie went on to state conclusively that there “will be no oil drilling in The Bahamas under a PLP government unless there is public support for such a step.”

“It will not be a matter of only persuading my government or only persuading the top safety and environmental experts – oil drilling will only happen if the people of The Bahamas want it to happen,” Mr. Christie said in his press statement. “We are on the record in support of a national referendum.”

Of course, Mr. Ingraham knows that his FNM government is “enjoying” its last days of incompetent governance of The Bahamas before it is voted out of office by the Bahamian electorate next Monday, May 7, and he is using all sorts of subterfuge and political trickery to induce voters into forgetting just have destructive he and his FNM government have been to The Bahamas over the past five years. His attempt to manufacture a scandal surrounding proposed oil drilling in The Bahamas is his latest act of deception.

If he really deplored political scandals, then why did he choose to sweep under the carpet the most egregious scandal that took place within months after his FNM government returned to power in May of 2007?

I am talking, of course, about the MONA VIE scandal, in which his protégé, Zhivargo Laing, was involved.

The Mona Vie scandal, which was a hot topic in early 2008, centered around a decision made by the then Comptroller of Customs John Rolle to properly change the duty on the importation of Mona Vie 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, a nutritional drink, complained to him about the change in duty, and Laing reportedly requested that the Secretary of the Revenue to 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 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, and it revealed “the contradictions and the evasion that are evident when you closely examine the three occasions on which Mr. Laing has spoken in the House of Assembly on this matter.”

“The Review shows that the Minister is in a clear position of conflict of interest,” Dr. Nottage noted. “The Review shows 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.

Noting that the Comptroller of Customs had said that this was illegal, Dr. Nottage called upon the 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 subsequent 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.”

The Prime Minister made a very unconvincing attempt to support his conclusions in noting that on November 20, 2007, when the Comptroller of Customs “determined that the product should be placed in a classification of items attracting a higher rate of customs duty, the Minister of State, acting upon advice and within the scope and ambit of his authority, determined that the rate confirmed by the Comptroller of Customs on 4 October 2007 should continue to be levied until the matter might be considered in the next Annual Budget.”

“The Minister at no time changed a customs duty rate,” the Prime Minister said in his statement. “Neither the Minister nor the Comptroller of Customs is empowered to change customs duty rates. Such a power is vested in the Governor General acting upon the advice of the Minister of Finance. And neither did so. Simply stated, the product Mona Vie was determined to have been wrongly classified.”

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.”

“The Prime Minister in his statement has mixed up the facts in a way that is bound to confuse and mislead,” Christie said. “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.”

Pointing out that the “Minister’s relatives complained to the Minister 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. 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.”

Keep in mind that the complaint by Laing’s relatives were made within months after the FNM returned to power in May of 2007. The conclusion could easily be reached that they 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 were 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: “Why has the Court not yet heard arguments related to this lawsuit or are the Bahamian people to assume that this matter was permanently swept under the carpet.

This scandal has roots way back to 2007, and Laing has over the past five years demonstrated that he has been a totally inept and incompetent Minister of State for Finance, so Ingraham could not use the excuse the Laing is too valuable to his governmental team to be dismissed as a result of this scandal.
In fact, after strong indications that Laing, the MP for Marco City in Grand Bahama, would have been easily defeated by PLP candidate Gregory Moss in the upcoming general election, Ingraham arranged for him to run for Fort Charlotte in New Providence, mainly because Laing has been hand-picked him as leader of the FNM.

This, of course, will not happen because Laing will be soundly defeated by PLP Fort Charlotte candidate Dr. Andre Rollins.

But there is still the matter of the MONA VIE scandal that Prime Minister Ingraham has got to give the Bahamian people a reason why he chose to “sweep it under the carpet” and stop trying to manufacture scandals that do not exist.