Shelter for impropriety

Tourism Minister Randall Mitchell - File photo by David Reid
Tourism Minister Randall Mitchell - File photo by David Reid

As he spoke during Monday’s debate on property tax legislation in the Senate, Randall Mitchell made a striking boast.

“I am proud to be the owner of property,” said the Minister of Tourism, Culture and the Arts.

Mr Mitchell was not declaring an interest in the matters at hand, but, rather, replying to crosstalk from Wade Mark, the Opposition Senator, who had raised the issue of a controversial arrangement involving the minister, Pan Trinbago and rented property at Dundonald Street, Port of Spain, the day before at a media conference.

The government senator missed an opportunity on Monday to reverse course on the issue and to send the right signal.

In fact, like Beverley Ramsey-Moore, the Pan Trinbago president, this week he missed several opportunities to distance himself from the culture of impropriety that has so often crippled faith in public institutions.

Mr Mitchell’s contention that there is “no conflict of interest or impropriety” in the Dundonald Street affair, simply because no rent has been paid directly to him, but, rather, to a tenant of his company, who has sublet it, flies in the face of his own disclosures on Sunday.

His admission that he “proactively spoke” with Ms Ramsey-Moore, as soon as he learned of Pan Trinbago’s interest in subletting the property, to discuss the potential perception of a conflict – albeit supposedly unfounded – and to urge her to “secure alternative accommodation to avoid the misconception” confirms that at the very least, he entered this arrangement fully aware of how it looks.

The Code of Conduct in the Integrity in Public Life Act states officials must arrange their private interests, pecuniary or otherwise, so as “to maintain public confidence and trust.” It is arguably clear the minister knew such trust could be shaken by these dealings, if we believe his account. This is a case study in why, as is mandated all over the world, ministers are supposed to place their assets in blind trust while holding office.

But of course, what matters here is not whether a law was broken, or a conflict of interest made out. For, whenever the shadowy culture of graft within public affairs takes centre stage, it almost always arrives clothed in legality: share transfers, contracts to pals, the watering-down of legislation to facilitate friends and financiers.

Meanwhile, the Pan Trinbago president’s claim that the rent on offer was “too good to pass up” suggests a unique understanding of the rental market in Port of Spain, whose skyline is cluttered with empty office buildings.

Her ignoring the line minister’s purported warning, as well as her continued justification of this arrangement, underlines the sense that both have, with eyes wide open, brought their offices into disrepute.


"Shelter for impropriety"

More in this section