(Editor’s Note: This letter first appeared in The Tribune)
In the run up to the 2017 General Election, the media and the public at large were whipped into a frenzy by a supposed conflict of interest that was exposed in email exchanges between then Education Minister Jerome Fitzgerald and Sarkis Izmirlian, the original Baha Mar developer. In the emails, Mr. Fitzgerald enquired after his father’s company’s application for a contract with the resort.
In England, the relevant rule for Ministerial conduct for conflicts of interests is clear: where a Minister self-deals on behalf of himself or a family member in an area which falls within his portfolio and / or exercises ministerial discretion to benefit himself, he is in conflict. In this instance, Minister Fitzgerald was discussing a matter that was not in any way related to his portfolio (Education) and any collective discretionary power he may have had over Mr. Izmirlian had already been exercised years before in the latter’s favour. In fact, the resort was already built.
In other words, the “conflict of interests” was pure fiction, a red herring dreamed up by the Bahamian media and sold shamelessly to an ignorant population. In the UK, it would not even have made the news. In The Bahamas, hardly anything else made the news for a week or so.
Moreover, as I pointed out at the time (and was, of course, ignored in the anti-PLP frenzy) the attempt to paint Mr. Fitzgerald’s conduct as a “conflict of interest” relied on a narrative that would make ministerial government unworkable in any society, much less one as small as The Bahamas. That narrative proposes that any minister cannot speak on his own or a family member’s behalf on any business matter with any person who depends on the license of the cabinet. It would place a Minister who argues about a fare with a (licenced) taxi cab driver in the exact same position of ‘conflict’ as Mr. Fitzgerald. In a country where EVERYBODY depends on Cabinet discretion to conduct business, it is an utterly ridiculous proposition.
Fast forward to 2019. Today we have a minister involved in a genuine conflict of interest. So genuine that the minister, shortly after resigning (not because of the conflict, he says) got on television and boldly described how he and the Prime Minister discussed the need to “deal with” the conflict of interests by a House Resolution. They also discussed contractual price, available space and the state of the building (a Volkswagen, rather than a Rolls Royce).
All of this directly contradicts the wording of the very resolution itself, which is prefaced: “Whereas one of the beneficial owners….is a serving Cabinet Minister who did not take part in the discussions leading to the decision to accept the offer…” In fact, in the Minister’s televised version, the matter seems not to have come to cabinet, nor to any kind of tendering process, but to have been concluded entirely in a private telephone call.
Miraculously, the media have had so little to say about this most blatant instance of public malfeasance that the headlines suggest just another week in summer (shark attacks, power outages, etc.). Malcolm Strachan, who had so much to say (mostly wrong) about the Fitzgerald affair, used his Tribune column on Monday to basically shrug off the affair on the perverse grounds that there are non-white oligarchs too.
As for the Minister himself, he has employed the ultimate weapon of mass distraction to spin his way out of the public crosshairs: race. Mr. Symonette is not new to this tactic, having once before deflected questions about his own character into a broad ‘discussion’ about perhaps the most boring, bottomless (and irrelevant) subject on earth. It’s like Richard Nixon arguing that Watergate should lead not to a trial, but to a national discussion on whether the country is ready for a two-term Capricorn president. A total insult to the intelligence.
Having seen this side of Minister Symonette before, Bahamians should ignore the nonsense about race and stay focused on one thing: the first time, Mr. Ingraham dismissed him, isolating the party from complicity. This time, the Prime Minister, who seems to have orchestrated the whole thing and ‘waived’ the conflict by invoking party discipline, has clearly shown himself as unfit for office as Mr. Symonette. If we had a halfway fair media (or if the PLP were in power), this is the only message that would be resonating today.
8 July 2019