By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
March 09, 2021
Sometimes we, as commentators, use our columns to pontificate about the correct moral and ethical thing to do, but I wonder if we were placed in positions of power would we not have done the same things that we condemn public officials for doing. I am thinking of Winston Duke, his wife, Kim de Silva, and all the other spouses of powerful men and women in government and trade unions who use their official connections to set up their better halves in business in which they are connected.
T&T is no exception.
A few days ago the inspector general of the U.S. Transportation Department in which Elaine Chao, the former transportation secretary during the Trump administration and wife of Mitch McConnell, the minority leader and most powerful Republican in the US, was accused of using her office to promote her family business that is led by her father and her sister.
In response to these charges, Chao declared: “Anyone familiar with Asian culture knows it is a core value in Asian communities to express honor and filial respect towards one’s parents” (New York Times, March 3).
Peter DeFazio, Democrat of Oregon, and chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, responded: “Public servants, appealing to a higher ethical interest responded: “Public servants, especially those responsible for leading tens of thousands of other public servants, must know that they serve the public and not their family’s private commercial interest.”
I wish I could tell this story to Duke, president of the Public Services Association (PSA) whose wife, Kim De Silva-Duke, director of Blackstone Engineering Technologies (BET), received $12.8 million dollars in contracts from WASA where, as the Express reported, her husband “was listed on the staff as manager.”
BET was awarded these contracts “to perform building maintenance, plumbing services and road reinstatement jobs.” Upon investigations BET listed a Ramer Model, a hand cutter, a road cutter and a water pump as its equipment. It is entirely possible that BET might have rented additional machinery to perform the jobs it was contracted to do.
The company also installed a main at Mt. St. George in Tobago, a project that was valued at $873,827.50. Ria Taitt noted that when this project was being undertaken, Duke was the president of the PSA and the Minority Leader of the Tobago House of Assembly.
When the Express contacted Ms. De Silva to inquire about her company, it was rebuffed rather brusquely: “What yuh calling my phone for? I not interested in your story, ok. Whatever you are carrying I am not interested, so don’t call my phone concerning no story, please.”
Duke did not acquit himself any better when he was asked about the conduct of BET. He called Marvin Gonzales, Public Utilities, “a nasty man” and declared: “I have no part of that company, I’ve never been part of the company at all….They owe we money for so much years now. They owe us money. He not saying that….I have to live here like everybody else. I eh make no bones about that, but it is a legitimate company.”
Duke is the head of one of the major trade unions in the country, the president of National Trade Union Center, and an assemblyman in the Tobago House of Assembly. He aspires, I am sure, to be the secretary of the Tobago House of Assembly and perhaps even the prime minister of the country. He has every legitimate right to do so. But is this the attitude we should expect from our national leaders?
Such conflicts of interest happen all over the world and governments are always trying to signal that such behaviors are not always conductive to the wellbeing of the nation. How can WASA be in such dire financial straits and allow this behavior to continue unabated? Does the investigatory arm of the state bear any responsibility here?
What were Elaine Chao’s misdemeanors? She was supposed to visit China in her capacity as the secretary of transportation. She wanted to take her father, president of the Foremost, a global shipping firm with major shipping business in China, and her sister Angela, a director of the Bank of China, with her. In 2018, staff members from Chao’s office “helped edit chapters from a biography of her father.” After “helping to edit the book, Ms. Chao’s staff then built a marketing strategy targeting journalists to build Dr. Chao’s profile.”
These infractions seem trivial to many of us, a conclusion that the US inspector general arrived at. Yet, he referred the matter to the Justice Department for possible criminal investigation. The department declined to bring criminal charges against her. Perhaps that was the fair thing to do.
This comingling of one’s private business with the public purse is rampant throughout our national life. It occurs in both parties and in every aspect of national life. I do not hold myself exempt from or above such behavior. As I said, if I held a national office, I may have done the same thing.
But do the words “shame” (a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior) or “shamelessness” (behavior marked by a bold defiance of the proprieties and lack of shame) exist in our national vocabulary? And if they don’t isn’t it time that we try to put them back where they belong.
A society cannot be a decent place to live where these two words, “shame” and “shamelessness” cease to have any meaning in how we conduct our affairs.
We need to ponder the implications of this statement as we seek to bring some decency back into our society. Such considerations will have to start from the top.