The year 2017 sure had its many fiascos: ferry fiasco, fake oil fiasco and the Marlene McDonald ministerial rehiring and firing fiasco among them.
McDonald, the former PNM housing minister who was fired 16 months earlier because of a conflict of interest, was rehired on June 30 as Minister of Public Utilities – and then fired after less than 70 hours.
In 2016, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley removed her from his Cabinet because she had hired her common-law husband to work in her Port of Spain South constituency office.
This time around, at her swearing-in ceremony at President’s House in St Ann’s, a reputed “community leader,” Cedric “Burkie” Burke, accompanied a guest whom McDonald had asked the Office of the President to invite.
Burke, who was arrested at the Hyatt Regency in Port of Spain during the 2011 State of Emergency, was charged under the anti-gang legislation with being a gang leader. He was not convicted.
McDonald introduced him to the President as a member of her constituency and they posed with the President for pictures.
McDonald’s replacement was former executive director of HFC Bank (Ghana), Robert Le Hunte who was appointed a minister on August 24. Days after, his ministerial and senatorial appointments were revoked because he was found to be a Ghanaian citizen. Having taken back his TT citizenship and given up his Ghanaian citizenship, he was reappointed, all within a week’s time.
In the absence of a substantive public utilities minister Rowley assumed the portfolio.
Aside from the rehirings, the passenger ferry and cargo services on the Tobago sea bridge were grinding to a halt, affecting mainly the economy and livelihood of Tobagonians. The usual two-and-a-half hour journey turned into five to six hours as the engines started failing.
Government chose not to renew the cargo vessel MV Galicia and replaced it with the MV Cabo Star at a higher daily rate. As the ferries T&T Spirit and T&T Express were due for mandatory dry docking, Government contracted the MV Ocean Flower 2, which was provided by Bridgeman’s Services, the owners of The Cabo Star.
Owing to the late delivery of the Ocean Flower 2, Government cancelled the contract, but Bridgemans threatened legal action and continued with the sailing of the vessel to TT.
After the contract was cancelled, allegations of corruption in the procurement of the both vessels from Bridgeman’s surfaced. Suspensions and firing of senior managers, including the general manager and CEO of the Port Authority (PATT) Charmaine Lewis ensued. Four or five inquiries were commissioned, including the one-man inquiry by businessman Christian Mouttet.
PATT’s search for another vessel was futile, Government said, so the Prime Minister appointed a Cabinet sub-committee to search for a vessel, bypassing the port authority. Going into the new year, that search is still on.
The T&T Spirit went on dry dock in June for what should have been a month, and is still on dry dock.
Meanwhile, the T&T Express, which was initially due for dry-docking in August, then October, is now scheduled to dry-dock in February next year, by which time, the T&T Spirit should be back in service.
With the hullabaloo over the ferry service, Tobago House of Assembly Minority Leader Watson Duke decided to take his protest about it to the sea and to swim the rough channel on August 28 from Tobago to Trinidad.
Duke made a joke of the exercise, swimming for about 500 metres in a lifejacket, then being towed for a short distance, after which he travelled in a boat before jumping out of the boat at Toco, Trinidad, to swim a few metres to shore.
Even before Government could recover from the ferry fiasco, Leader of the Opposition Kamla Persad-Bissessar in September revealed at a UNC meeting that a Petrotrin audit had found a number of the company’s employees were allegedly involved in actions which saw crude oil supplies from lease operator A&V Oil and Gas to the Pointe-a-Pierre refinery going up from 28,628 barrels to 111,006 barrels in ten months, resulting in Petrotrin having to pay close to $100 million for crude it never received. The owner of A&V is the Prime Minister’s friend and a financier of the PNM.
Some media operatives covering the story were assaulted by A&V security details, with TT Guardian photographer Kristian De Silva being beaten and his camera and spectacles damaged.
De Silva was not the only casualty of this fake oil fiasco. Allyson Baksh, daughter of the owner of A&V, resigned as a PNM senator. Even before the fake oil story was made public, chairman of the Petrotrin board, Andrew Jupiter, resigned in July, citing personal reasons. Last month, president of Petrotrin Fitzroy Harewood resigned as chairman.
A&V now appears to be its own casualty, as Petrotrin announced on December 22 that it has “given notice of the termination of contract to the lease operator associated with the discrepancies in reported oil production and actual receipts revealed by its Internal Audit Department earlier this year.”
In September, the Prime Minister contributed to the fake oil fiasco with his own gaffe by accusing Persad-Bissessar of jumping off on a preliminary inquiry and accusing everyone of being a part of a grand conspiracy. He said, “You could behave as an effective Opposition Leader but jammetry is not really the way to deal with these things. Sometimes that type of behaviour may be an impediment to getting to the root of the problem.”
There was a quick backlash to Rowley’s “jammetry” comment, with many criticising him on social media as crass and sexist. The Opposition, including those not in the Parliament, condemned the comments and called on him to apologise.
Then in October, during the budget debate, defending Government’s spending $3 million to upgrade the Chaguaramas golf course, Rowley said, “A golf course is like a woman, so you have to groom her every day, otherwise it turns into pasture.” Within minutes he was being called a sexist on social media...and his comment was another topic of conversation.