By Raffique Shah
May 24, 2018
It was perhaps an indicator of just how inured this society is to corruption that, except for an Express editorial, no one has commented on Justice Frank Seepersad’s scathing but incisive remarks in his ruling against Jack Warner in a $1.5 million lawsuit that reeked of political machinations.
The lawsuit was filed by Krishna Lalla, who admitted to being a supporter of the United National Congress, although he denied that the money he had “loaned” Warner in 2007 was a campaign contribution to the UNC for the election that year, which the party lost.
Warner insisted that the $1.5 million was a contribution. But he did not explain why the cheques were made payable to a private company that he owns. Although he ruled in Lalla’s favour, it is clear from his pronouncements that the judge believed neither litigant was telling the whole truth.
In his ruling, Seepersad J said, inter alia, “There is an entrenched public perception that elected officers can be sold to the highest bidder and that campaign contributions are the functional equivalent of bribes…
“The evidence adduced in this matter demonstrates the perception may well be the reality that unfolds…financiers can legitimately purchase goodwill and exercise undue influence over politicians and political parties…
“The absence of campaign finance regulations has led to a culture of kickbacks and corruption.”
I have quoted extensively from the judge’s ruling not merely because, mostly, I agree with him, but also because I disagree with his inference that campaign finance regulations would eliminate or even reduce the multi-million-dollar influence-peddling that has permeated this country’s electoral politics.
Supporters, who revel in the trinkets that are distributed during campaigns, as well as free transport to meetings and rallies, free food and drinks and more, do not ask themselves who is paying for these things, and what do the financiers expect in return for their “investments” if or when their party wins the elections.
This vulgarity didn’t start with Warner, or with “Ish, Steve and Brian” who invaded the UNC platform in 1995 by invitation from Basdeo Panday. Ish and Brian began blending politics with business under the PNM, the former as a contractor at the Caroni racing complex when Dr Eric Williams was Prime Minister, the latter as a minister in the 1991 Patrick Manning Cabinet.
Earlier, there were schemers like John O’Halloran, Francis Prevatt, John Ou Wai (the latter two fled to Panama when the PNM was annihilated in 1986) and sundry others whose names will have exhausted an old time “copybook”. By the time the UNC finished its second stint in office in 2015, not even a computer’s hard drive had space for “investors” who bought shares in government, or thousands of corrupt contractors and greedy party hacks who feasted on the public purse like hogs in a trough.
No legislation will deter those who are inherently unscrupulous from engaging in corruption. Many politicians enter the arena seeing it as a means to enrich themselves much the way financiers invest in parties in order to feast on what they see as the spoils of office.
The Integrity in Public Life legislation has been in force for more than a decade. The Commission empowered to audit hundreds of parliamentarians, State boards’ directors, statutory commissions’ members, etc, cannot get them to file their annual returns on time, far less to successfully prosecute them for infringements of the law.
The enactment of legislation to regulate the financing of political parties, which many see as critical to cleaning up the murky waters that camouflage this multi-million-dollar feeding-fest, is doomed to similar failure. That is tantamount to asking Ali Baba to rein in the banditry of his forty thieves: it’s not going to happen.
Let me tell you a story—and this is no fable. The executive of the original ULF (1975-1977), which comprised men such as George Weekes, Joe Young, Panday, Lloyd Doolan, George Sammy, Allan Alexander, Lennox Pierre, James Millette and I (there were others), well before the 1976 general election, discussed campaign financing.
Although we were poor, with contributions ranging between $5 and $40 coming from our grassroots supporters, and not more than $300 from the better-off, the idealists of 1970 decided that we’d put a cap of $2,000 to avoid any individual or business house wielding inordinate influence in the party.
At an executive meeting one night, Richard Jacob, a UWI lecturer and member, waved a $5,000 cheque from Kirpalani’s, one of the biggest commercial enterprises in the country. There was an uneasy quiet around the table before the chairman reminded him of the cap. He argued for us to waive it since we needed the money.
But to a man, the executive stood firm: return the cheque to Kirpalani’s, tell them we’d appreciate it if they would adhere to our policy, and we’d be thankful if they’d donate $2,000 instead.
Besides members of the executive who are still alive, Mr Hans Hanoomansingh, who was a senior manager at Kirpalani’s in 1976, can testify to what I have recounted here.
Panday and Weekes would later jointly secure a personal loan in the sum of $15,000 which those of us who were elected MPs and nominated senators contributed to paying off.
We didn’t need legislation to tell us what was ethical and what was not. All it took was the resolve of a few decent men…