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Bahama Pundit: The Ties That Bind
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Posted by:Jul 17th 2008, 08:51:33 am
Fig Tree News TeamPolitical Storm Brewing in the Turks & Caicos Islands
by Larry Smith,

A category 5 hurricane is brewing right next-door to us in the Turks & Caicos Islands, but most Bahamians don't have a clue about what's happening.

The governor there just announced a commission of inquiry to probe official corruption, a British warship is standing by, and there are fears that London may be preparing to suspend the islands' constitution - for the second time.

The inquiry begins in September - in the face of strong objections from Premier Michael Misick, who was re-elected in a landslide last year. It will be headed by Sir Robin Auld, a leading British jurist who now serves on Bermuda's court of appeal. Auld's appointment follows a report by British MPs calling on the Foreign Office to investigate the TCI government.

The call for an inquiry was part of a wide-ranging review of the state of Britain's so-called overseas territories - those anachronistic hangovers from its glory days as an imperial power. In addition to TCI, the territories include the Cayman Islands, the British Virgin Islands, Anguilla, Montserrat and Bermuda in this part of the world.

In other corners of the globe they include historical bits and pieces like the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, St Helena, the Pitcairn Islands, South Georgia, the Chagos Islands and the British Antarctic Territory.

The House of Commons committee received dozens of submissions from Turks & Caicos residents - many in confidence. Their report concluded that "serious allegations of corruption are already damaging TCI’s reputation, and there are signs that they may soon begin to affect the islands’ tourism industry. There is also a great risk that they will damage the UK’s own reputation for promoting good governance."

Referring to a "palpable climate of fear" in the territory, the report accused the Foreign Office of being "too hands off" amid concerns about "rampant" corruption within the TCI government and the suppression of freedom of speech by the Misick administration. Concerns were also expressed about money laundering and the scale of illegal Haitian immigration. It's like a throwback to the last days of the Pindling regime in the Bahamas.

Finally, the committee warned that it would take "all appropriate steps" if there was any retaliation against witnesses by the Misick government. A recent series of arson attacks on the islands' main courthouse and the offices of the attorney general have been seen as attempts to intimidate the justice system.

Premier Misick, a lawyer and former businessman, is at the centre of the corruption claims. He is alleged to have built up a multi-million dollar fortune since he was first elected in 2003 with declared assets of only $50,000. And he has also vastly inflated the cost of the premier's office. According to official figures, the premier's salary and expenses have risen from $170,000 in 2003 to over $4 million last year.

In its report, the British parliamentary committee also noted that Misick is currently under investigation by US lawmen over the alleged rape of an American citizen. The premier's biggest claim to fame so far is his 2006 marriage to American starlet LisaRaye McCoy, which former tourism minister Obie Wilchcombe attended as a groomsman. The allegations of sexual assault against Misick have sparked rumors of an impending divorce.

For the past several years, TCI has enjoyed a booming economy similar to ours - fueled by residential/resort development and offshore finance - but this has apparently been part of the problem. The British report focused on claims that Misick and his fellow Progressive National Party ministers were enriching themselves from the sale of Crown land to speculators. Misick has dismissed the report as "unbalanced" and denied any wrongdoing.

In a related matter, the colonial authorities recently halted construction of a huge artificial island in a national park off the coast of Providenciales that critics said was an environmental disaster in the making. According to Governor Richard Tauwhare, the developer, Rodney Propps of Provo's Leeward Group, did not have planning permission for the massive project.

Careful to avoid political favouritism, the governor said the inquiry will look at complaints against both the current PNP administration and the previous Peoples Democratic Movement government under former premier Derek Taylor. The PDM was the party that would have taken TCI into independence in the early 1980s had it not been for the death of former Chief Minister J.A.G.S. McCartney, who was its leading proponent.

“The Commission is directed to inquire into possible acts in relation to elected members, past or present, of the House of Assembly," the governor declared ominously. "This includes members from either party, and also those persons who are no longer members or holding ministerial office.”

He said that in addition to investigating corruption, the commission would also report on any "systemic weaknesses in legislation, regulation and administration" which it may identify during its proceedings.

But even before the commission holds its first hearing, the governor cited a number of efforts to clean house. An independent Integrity Commission is being established, with extensive powers to investigate corruption in the territory. Work is also underway on measures to improve the management of Crown land, which lies at the heart of many of the current and earlier allegations.

The Turks & Caicos Islands are geographically part of the Bahamas and were politically united with us under British rule from the 1700s until the mid-nineteenth century, when they became a dependency of Jamaica. The islands were re-connected to the Bahamas in 1962, when Jamaica became independent, but chose to remain British in 1973, when we gained our independence.

The latest corruption controversy is the biggest flap in these islands since 1985, when former chief minister Norman Saunders and his development minister Stafford Missick, who was a former official of the Bahamas Central Bank, were arrested in Miami on drug trafficking and bribery charges. They were both convicted and imprisoned in the US, and the British suspended the constitution to impose direct rule.

After a revamped constitution was restored two years later, the Peoples Democratic Movement under Oswald Skippings won a landslide election victory. Interestingly, both Skippings and Nathaniel Francis, the man who replaced Saunders as PNP leader, had been deemed unfit for office by British investigators.

The PDM remained the dominant party until the 2003 legislative elections , when the PNP won 8 out of 13 seats and Misick became chief minister. In February 2007 the PNP was re-elected with 13 of 15 seats in the unicameral legislature.

A look back at the 1967 Bahamas Commission of Inquiry
Sir Robin Auld, the British judge who will be leading the TCI inquiry, happened to be a member of the 1967 commission of inquiry in the Bahamas, which was part and parcel of the political upheavals that took place here in the late 60s. Since he will soon be back in the neighbourhood, it's worth recalling that earlier investigation.

The commission was formed to probe payoffs by Freeport casino interests to Bahamian government officials. It began meeting in the now-demolished Royal Victoria Hotel soon after the Progressive Liberal Party narrowly came to power on an anti-corruption and majority rule platform in 1967.

The investigation was provoked by reports in the Wall Street Journal and other publications of personal and political payments to the former United Bahamian Party government of more than $2.5 million by the Grand Bahama Port Authority and its subsidiaries over several years.

These charges were credited with the epochal defeat of the Bay Street Boys, and ushered in a quarter century of PLP rule under the late Sir Lynden Pindling. They also led to the self-imposed exile of former finance minister Sir Stafford Sands, once the most dominant figure in Bahamian public life.

Former UBP premier Sir Roland Symonette had agreed to an inquiry before the January 10 election, but it was not appointed until March, by the new PLP government. Scores of witnesses were heard over a 45-day period, before the commission's 140-page report was published in the fall.

The back story to this was a change in the law banning gambling to allow special exemptions for resort casinos. This was done in 1939 to legalise the casinos at Cat Cay and in the Bahamian Club on West Bay Street. In 1963 a third exemption was granted for Freeport, which was under development by the private Grand Bahama Port Authority. It was this decision - taken by the governor-in-council - that led to all the trouble.

The developers said Freeport needed the casinos to help lure investors and visitors to the island. The idea was pursued through Sir Stafford, who was retained as the Port's lawyer. In those days government leaders did not receive a salary and continued to earn their living from the private sector. The Monte Carlo Casino opened in Freeport in 1964.

The inquiry found that the police commissioner had allowed undesirables to be employed at the Monte Carlo. He had also received a discounted house lot and an investment license from the Port. He was forced to resign. The "undesirables" included several US fugitives who were in Freeport at the direction of American organised crime chief Meyer Lanksy.

Sir Stafford (who was finance and tourism minister at the time) received over $1.8 million in consultancy fees from the Port between 1962 and 1966. Other officials who received payoffs included the premier, Sir Roland Symonette; Dr Raymond Sawyer; Exuma MP Freddie Brown; and House Speaker Bobby Symonette.

Payments were also made to other individuals and groups in the colony - some of them strong critics of casino gambling - in an effort to soften opposition to the project. The Port also paid over $320,000 to the UBP via Sir Stafford "to keep that party in power", according to chairman Keith Gonsalves.

But the PLP did not come out unscathed either. Premier Pindling was questioned on his close ties with Mike McLaney, an unsavoury American who ran casinos in Cuba until the 1959 revolution. McClaney contributed over $60,000 to the PLP in the expectation of getting a casino license if the party won power.

In January 1968, after publication of the commission report, the PLP passed a motion of censure in Parliament against those UBP leaders who had accepted payoffs and threatened them with criminal prosecution. The government also introduced salaries for public officials and drafted a code of ethics prohibiting ministers from accepting substantial gifts from persons doing business with the government.

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