By Candia Dames / Guardian Editor
On Nomination Day on April 20, 2017, the same day the Tribune in an explosive expose revealed that then Education Minister Jerome Fitzgerald had shamelessly and abusively tried to solicit lucrative contracts from then Baha Mar developer Sarkis Izmirlian, Free National Movement (FNM) Leader Dr. Hubert Minnis demanded that Prime Minister Perry Christie immediately fire Fitzgerald from his Cabinet.
“A cardinal principle of Cabinet governance is that a Cabinet minister must ensure that no conflict arises or appears to arise between their public duties and their private interests,” said a seemingly outraged Minnis.
“That trust is paramount in doing the people’s businesses.”
Using strong language, he declared: “Anything less than immediate removal makes the prime minister complicit in this fraud.”
Fast-forward to Nomination Day 2021 to another version of Minnis – not one alarmed by rotting fish in his own boat, but one ignoring its problematic presence.
While the Jerome Fitzgerald smoking gun added more fuel to an already energized FNM campaign and strengthened the FNM’s PLP corruption narrative in the minds of many voters, the Minnis of 2021 is noticeably silent in the face of an apparent conflict of interest involving his party’s incumbent Long Island candidate, Adrian Gibson, the executive chairman of Water and Sewerage Corporation (WSC).
The outrage Minnis expressed in 2017 and the conviction he attempted to demonstrate at the time contrast starkly with his failure to act against Gibson, and to cause there to be full disclosure of all matters surrounding the award of WSC contracts to Elite Maintenance Incorporated Ltd., whose director was a woman with the same name as Gibson’s then fiancee.
Gibson identified his fiancee in a police report on an unrelated matter in October 2020 as someone he shared a bank account with.
That Gibson, four days after documents were leaked to the media pointing strongly to a conflict, has failed to say whether the company’s director was indeed his fiancee speaks volumes, and leaves reasonable minded individuals to conclude the two individuals are indeed one and the same.
No politician, let alone one seeking re-election, would miss an opportunity to state clearly, swiftly and unequivocally that no one connected to him received any contracts from the corporation whose board he heads, if that were an irrefutable fact.
Gibson in his statement on this matter on Sunday night said the woman in question was an attorney acting on behalf of the company awarded the contracts, and advised that she eventually severed arrangements with the company.
In addition to refusing to say whether he had a personal relationship with that particular company director or any relation to any other individuals identified as a director of the company, Gibson also did not say whether he had disclosed to the board any existing relationships with anyone involved in the company that secured contracts from the corporation.
It is also not unreasonable for Bahamians to question whether any funds from WSC contracts ended up in the joint bank account he spoke of in his police statement last year.
It would be absolutely incredible if Gibson is arrogant enough to think the statement he issued on Sunday, and the one issued by WSC General Manager Elwood Donaldson assuring the contracts went to bid, are enough to make this matter go away.
If anything, they have only underscored the need for critical questions to be directly addressed, and those statements, particularly the one from the executive chairman, insult the intelligence of the Bahamian people.
Those statements also further erode the fragile trust that exists between the Minnis administration and many Bahamians, some of whom feel like the FNM ran a fraudulent campaign in 2017 when it pledged a new era of transparency, respect for the Bahamian people, and good governance.
While he has been quick to point out abusive actions and condemn the PLP at every turn, Gibson appears to have ran for cover, ignoring media calls and instead releasing his largely empty statement.
Who could forget Gibson’s repeated bombast in Parliament as he sought to expose corruption at Water and Sewerage, obviously seeking to position himself for a more important role in a future government given his disappointment in being overlooked for a Cabinet post in 2017?
In 2018, Gibson told Parliament: “The Water and Sewerage Corporation is a harrowing tale, a case study, Mr. Speaker, of mismanagement, gross negligence, malfeasance, corrupt and or questionable practices, failure to observe and adhere to established protocols, errant and maverick conduct on the part of senior management, complicity, conflict of interest and dereliction of duty. One can even go as far as to say some executives have displayed a pattern of dismissive and belligerent behavior, in respect to consecutive boards.”
How successful has Gibson been in cleaning up the corruption he claimed existed at the corporation?
For his part, Works Minister Desmond Bannister, after revealing what he called PLP corruption in 2017, said he had no problem with opening the files so all can see that his claims of corruption, abusive conduct and questionable actions on the part of the Christie administration could all be verified.
“We have nothing to hide from the opposition or the Bahamian people as members opposite did so frequently during their time in power,” he previously said.
Now, Deputy Prime Minister Bannister, like Minnis, is as quiet as a church mouse tinkling on cotton in the corner as questions linger over the contract awards to Elite Maintenance Incorporated Ltd.
We ask the question: Is there anything to hide in relation to this matter?
Calls to the minister have gone unanswered as have calls to Gibson.
If the FNM government has nothing to hide then it should cause for there to be full and transparent airing of this matter involving the people’s money.
Wrongdoing, abusive or inappropriate behavior and conflicts of interest should not only be condemned and called out when they involve the Progressive Liberal Party.
They must be condemned no matter who is involved if Minnis is to be taken seriously in his oft stated pledge of being “distinctly different”.
Ironically, as social media was afire over the leaked WSC documents, the prime minister at a drive-in rally on New Providence on Saturday night was on the stage seeking to convince voters of PLP corruption and again employing scare tactics as he warned Bahamians, particularly young voters, that Philip Brave Davis is unfit to lead any country and would only take The Bahamas back to its “dark past”.
Minnis’ unseemly attack on the PLP leader appeared to come out of the belly of a man desperate to hang on to power and with barely a record to actually run on. The best shot he’s got is to attack Davis’ reputation and hope that the corruption label sticks on the PLP as it did four and a half years ago.
The prime minister is clearly hoping to awake the fears and stir the anxieties he and the FNM successfully triggered when they talked about the VAT money being stolen ahead of the last election.
It is becoming increasingly apparent that they are on a sinking ship, clawing at anything they can find — no matter how flimsy — to hold themselves afloat.
Minnis, it seems, seeks to hypnotize Bahamians, projecting them into a dark and terrifying future under another PLP administration, before snapping them back to reality with the hopes that they would take another chance with him.
Meanwhile, he is ignoring the gigantic mote in his party’s eye.
On the sidelines of that rally on Saturday, our reporter asked him to comment on the “Adrian Gibson matter”, but the prime minister, as he walked away, did not look back to offer a response.
We could all easily imagine the energy and swiftness with which Minnis and the FNM would have attacked this very matter had Gibson been a PLP ensnared in this controversy.
Instead, Minnis in ignoring the scandal, belies his commitment to deal with anyone in his administration found to be abusing their office or involved in questionable behavior or in conflicts of interest.
Not surprisingly, many FNMs, following Minnis’ lead, are hoping this matter will blow over, that voters will not take note and the media will move on from it.
But the seriousness of it cannot be overstated, especially given the fact that the most significant plank of the FNM’s campaign in 2017 was addressing bad behavior, corruption and conflicts.
The Integrity Commission Bill, which the Minnis administration brought to Parliament in 2017 and shelved, comprehensively detailed acts of corruption, including the behavior of public officials with respect to the award of contracts and soliciting or accepting any personal benefit or providing an advantage for another person by doing an act or omitting to do an act in the performance of his or her functions as a public official.
The bill was also intended to promote and enhance ethical conduct for MPs, senators and other public officials.
The Public Procurement Act, expected to come into force today, also addresses conflicts of interest, stating that: “A person employed in a procuring entity or a member of a tender committee or a member of the board who has any conflict of interest in any procurement, or a member of the tribunal who has any conflict of interest in any appeal before the tribunal shall— (a) disclose his interest as soon as possible after becoming aware of the procurement or of the appeal; and (b) recuse himself from the evaluation and award of the procurement contract or the appeal.
“The disclosure of interest shall be recorded in the records of the procurement or the records of the appeal.”
When Minnis’ Cabinet was sworn in on May 15, 2017, he said, “Each day, we must work to maintain the confidence and trust of the people who voted for a new day.”
If Minnis thinks his reaction – or lack thereof – to the Adrian Gibson controversy shows his government working to maintain confidence and trust of the people then he is even more delusional than we believe him to be.
From all of the information in the public domain, the proper course of action should be for Gibson to tender his resignation as executive chairman. Failing that, Minnis should fire him.
While the firing might only be symbolic given how close we are to an election, that might actually strengthen Minnis’ weak public image.
Notwithstanding his efforts to appear confident that the FNM will win “all 39 seats”, we think Minnis understands that he faces a dog fight in his efforts to be the first incumbent prime minister re-elected in more than two decades.
That would mean he does not want to do anything to disturb the expected win in Long Island, traditionally a secure FNM seat.
Even if Gibson is re-elected in Long Island just over two weeks from now, the matter of the WSC contracts will likely trail him throughout the rest of his political career and make any leadership aspirations the young politician might have even more difficult to realize.
We see no exit door for him out of this controversy.
Even if the FNM miraculously pulls off a win come September 16, securing a new mandate, its credibility to speak on such matters would be threatened.
If Gibson was engaged in no conflicts in the award of contracts, then he, Minnis, and the deputy minister should have no problem speaking fully to these issues.
We will wait to see if anything is said by them in the coming days, although we are not stupid enough to hold our collective breath.