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Monday 23 October 2017
Commentary

Worrying signs

On October 3, 1975, Eric Williams was winding up his address to the annual PNM Convention when he let fly at the Civil Service: “And this initiative of public officers. What of it? Initiative to do what? To violate the financial procedures of which the Auditor-General is the nation’s watchdog? To make appointments and transfers within the Civil Service without the approval of the Public Service Commission?”

He lambasted what he called “a small group of ambitious senior civil servants,” then said, “I wonder how many of you here understand how close we stood in Trinidad and Tobago…to takeover by a technocracy, only wanting someone to convey an aura of respectability by chairing its committee! And I am to be crucified for denying initiative to senior officers!”

Williams’ main targets soon knew who they were: Doddridge Alleyne, then his permanent secretary and head of the Public Service; Frank Rampersad, the brilliant, workaholic permanent secretary in Finance; and Eugenio Moore, the Planning permanent secretary. Charges, soon dropped, were laid against Alleyne; Moore was suspended for years until the NAR took office in 1986; Rampersad, who later told me he heard about his removal from office on his car radio while driving home, was at least allowed to take up a post at the Commonwealth Secretariat in London.

I wrote in an October 2010 article: “Whatever the reason or reasons for Williams’ ferocity…the Public Service has not recovered from this assault on its leadership. It pulled in its horns, and politicians gratefully exploited this new diffidence, thus weakening it further to the detriment of the country…”

All of this has come back to me because of what I see as an official campaign against Leon Grant, the Acting CEO of the Trinidad and Tobago Inter-Island Transportation Co., in the continuing sea bridge saga. First, Grant was suspended from duty; I assume that his letter of suspension sets out the grounds thereof, and that he received prior official warnings.

Then, in his September 18 appearance before the Joint Select Committee considering the sea bridge issue, the Prime Minister, referring to documents received from an undisclosed source which mentioned Grant by name, hinted clearly (he didn’t actually say so) that Grant had disregarded a much lower offer from Baja Ferries for the Cabo Star lease than the amount eventually settled on with Bridgeman’s. The unspoken question: why would Grant have done so?

Another hint was to come from the PM that same afternoon. While he took responsibility for the confusion attending the lease of the vessels, he added that it showed how the management had misled the board, which had in turn misled the Minister, who had in turn misled the Cabinet. So who, according to this version, started the bassa bassa? The management. And who was the manager most directly involved in the matter?

Three days later, while criticising Wade Mark, the PM indicated that “a public officer” (in the context, Grant) had “serious questions to answer”. What are these “serious questions”? Is the basis for them the word of an anonymous informant?

If these prime ministerial statements, taken with Grant’s previous suspension, do not conduce to a suspicion of corrupt activity on Grant’s part, what do they mean? Something else therefore emerges: the concept of natural justice. All these hints and winks and nudges where Grant is concerned worry me; they remind me of a past incident.

Many years ago the PM-to-be had major problems with the then Integrity Commission. I was one of those – only a few, as I recall – who spoke and wrote publicly in his support, because I felt strongly that the Commission was illegally denying him the elementary principle of natural justice; it was appearing to find him guilty without having informed him that he was even being investigated! I also contacted both the then President, Max Richards, and the Commission Chairman on the matter: the principle was the important thing, not the personality. Rowley went to court, and won. The judgment chastised the Commission, which subsequently resigned.

I would not want to believe that the PM is today following a path which, a decade ago, was found – in his favour – to be judicially abhorrent. Grant must be given a full and fair hearing. If incontrovertible (or at least substantial) evidence shows that he has sinned, he must then pay the price of his transgression. The same consideration applies to the Port Acting General Manager, Charmaine Lewis, who also seems to be under scrutiny.

But in law, if not theology, sin must first be proved beyond reasonable doubt. That, not innuendoes and insinuations, is what natural justice demands, within the much touted, much ignored framework of good governance.

Unless, of course, we are still in 1975.

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